By Andy Mannix
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Getting Families Out of Shelters
Housing homeless families became a high priority for Minnesota state government in the 1990s, and justifiably so. Researchers at Columbia University concluded that half the kids in shelters have chronic health problems. Over forty percent have asthma or other respiratory problems. The rate of ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems among shelter kids is three times that of the population at large. The rate of diabetes is more than ten times higher, and the rate of tuberculosis is 100 times higher. It's clear that living in shelters is physically and emotionally stressful.
Unfortunately, shelters are difficult to exit without help. The county-funded shelters cost $25.66 per person per day. That includes infants. This means a family of five will pay more than $125 a day to stay in a shelter. If they can't afford this, all the earnings and benefits they do receive will be taken over by the shelter, and the shortfall will be made up by the county.
With these fees, it's tough for clients who do make money to save enough to get out. Perhaps as importantly, there is little incentive to get work for adults who are stuck with families in shelters. At the wage rate most shelter residents can expect to receive, their entire check will be taken over by the shelter. According to Audrey, escaping the shelters is particularly difficult for new arrivals. "People from out of state are not eligible for benefits until day thirty-one here. Consequently, they come to the shelter, they don't have any money saved, they don't have any resources, they don't know anybody, they're stuck."
Under Minnesota's Family Homeless Prevention Act of 1994, money became available to agencies like St. Stephen's to work with the county in getting people out of the shelters. "Hennepin County gave some flexibility on how agencies do this, as long as they got the job done," says Sue. Many agencies rely on supervised, transitional-housing programs to get people out of the shelters. These may keep residents from getting into trouble, but do not provide experience in successful independent living.
"The St. Stephen's approach has been to help people find permanent housing and give them a lot of support in the transition time," says Sue. "We teach individuals to be good tenants in the places they're going to live permanently." St. Stephen's will place about 100 families and 100 singles in apartments this year. By concentrating resources on placement and support, they avoid the problem of clients becoming stuck in or dependent on transitional housing. "The problem with transitional housing is that sometimes there is no place to go when your time is up," says Sue.
Through public and private grants, St. Stephen's is able to help clients with housing-related costs. They will cosign leases, help clients financially in times of need, and work closely with clients and landlords, which has helped build up a network of landlords who prefer to rent to St. Stephen's clients. This trust is important when trying to place clients who have poor or no rental histories. But still, the list of housing applicants is long compared to the list of available housing.
Audrey Preston has spent twenty-eight of her fifty years working in the chemical dependency field. She transferred her skills into homeless advocacy with St. Stephen's when she moved here from Chicago. "My daughter had been in a homeless shelter before. I sent her here to Minneapolis with her kids when she could no longer stay with her abusive husband in Illinois. When I finally saw the shelter she stayed in, tears jumped into my eyes. If I had known what the conditions were, I wouldn't have encouraged her to come."
Now Audrey does her best to find apartments for single adults and families. But low-income housing continues to be replaced by upscale apartment buildings and office parks. African Americans and other minority groups frequently face discrimination by landlords. Migrants from other cites have gotten a bad reputation, according to Audrey, because Minneapolis landlords have different standards for acceptable tenant behavior.
"In Chicago, where I came from, as long as you pay your rent, they don't care if you move a gorilla up inside your house," says Audrey. "That's not the case here. There are very strict guidelines and rules that people from out of state don't know about." These rules include restrictions on how many people may live in the apartment, how much noise the tenants may make, and even expectations on how long children may be left in the apartment unattended. Since most of Audrey's clients are from out of state, her job becomes that much more difficult. "Our agency has a pretty good catch of landlords," says Audrey. "But even many of those don't want to take people who are from out of town. I might have to go through twenty to thirty clients just to get seven or eight placements. The others go back to the shelters or where they came from."
People who come through the St. Stephen's programs frequently have had difficulties with abusive relationships, poor health, drugs, or some other life challenge that makes finding and holding apartments difficult. "Between housing placement and job placement, housing is a hundred times more difficult," says Sue. " With a job you've got to keep it together for eight hours a day. With housing you've got to keep it together twenty-four hours a day."
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