Homelessness on the home front; it’s an issue in Washington County

This story is part one of a three-part look at local homelessness

Homelessness in Washington County may not be at the forefront of many people’s minds, but the county and several other service organizations say it’s a problem on their radars.

Low incomes and lack of transportation and affordable housing play a role. In response to the issue a group has formed called the “housing collaborative” that concerns itself with homelessness and the contributing factors.

Washington County is part of the Suburban Metro Area Continuum (SMAC) that acts as a county collaborative to help with the issue of homelessness. The area deals with Anoka, Scott, Carver, Dakota and Washington counties.

Every year a point-in-time survey is done in shelters and through organizations across the state that attempts to take a count of this highly mobile population to determine the level of need in various communities.

The 2013 survey took place on Jan. 23, 2013.

In the Jan. 2013 count, the point-in-time data numbers stood at 713 individuals throughout the SMAC area. Washington County alone reported 394 individuals, about 55 percent of the SMAC population count. Of those individuals 251 (64 percent) were adults while 143 (36 percent) counted were children. About half of that number were living with relatives or friends, while about 12 percent were paying for a motel room out of pocket. That number has grown since 2007, according to Diane Elias, associate planner of community services in Washington County, and a significant increase was seen from 2009-2013. Elias credits the large increase in the number to more effective reporting through the introduction of an online survey that occurs each year in tandem with the point-in-time survey.

“On any given night in January 2013, 394 people were counted as homeless,” Elias said. “Homelessness looks different in Minnesota and the suburban community. I think with all the cold weather we’ve seen this year that more people doubled up with family and friends. Other places aren’t affected by the weather as much as we are here. But here, especially when it’s cold, people don’t tend to leave people out in the cold. Allowing people to stay with them in this situation can jeopardize the other person’s housing too.”

Though it’s not a highly visible issue, the problem does exist, and the county and other organizations are working to lessen the impact on families and adults they serve.

“We mainly serve adults and families,” Elias said. “We serve people who would like to stay here that are looking for services and can’t access them. We are seeing more youth than what we have in the past.”

Elias said Washington County Housing serves anywhere from 500-600 households a year in a housing crisis, either by phone or in person, and can help with landlord mediation as well. Overall, Elias said, that means that the county is helping an estimated 1,100-1,200 people in crisis each year.

In 2013 the housing coordinator helped nine households in Bayport, three of which were homeless; in Lake Elmo 16 households were served, and four were homeless; while in Stillwater, 83 households were helped, with 29 of those being homeless.

Washington County is different from some counties because there isn’t one central location homeless individuals must go to seek help.

St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, which serves both Washington and Ramsey counties, has a community resource center to help address this problem.

“Looking at the numbers, we have we’ve seen a bit of an increase in the percent of Washington County residents that we help,” Kellie Cardinal, CRC Director said. “They’ve just had a lot of really reduced funding available at the county level, and other programs were cut.”

Other resources in the area, including Valley Outreach in Stillwater have also noticed an increase in the use of their services, while Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale has had a 70 percent increase since it opened a shelter two years ago.

“Homelessness has grown, and like most people, I don’t think we’re capturing the entirety of the reality of it,” said Cynthia Fredericks, emergency fund resource manager at Valley Outreach. “A lot of the point-in-time surveys and Wilder (Foundation) surveys don’t reflect what we’re seeing a lot of the time.”

In an average month Valley Outreach has 10-15 people come in to use the emergency fund, a resource that can only be used once per year. It can be used for a variety of needs, including preventing evictions, disconnect notices, transportation and car repairs, as well as the stability of a damage deposit or helping people move into an apartment.

“Service providers in the area work to help each other,” Fredericks said. “No one is alone in this thing, and we’re working on this as a team. The housing collaborative meets once a week to address the needs of the homeless. And we’ve determined that we do need to make changes in how we help people. It’s very important to have partners in this endeavor too, because it’s so daunting.”

Fredericks said there isn’t always a difference between a crisis level of poverty and homelessness.

“They’re often interconnected, like if someone gets sick at work or injured on the job, they’ll lose income and they’re out for two months,” she said. “After that they are going down the road to homelessness. Doubling up with relatives after they lose their home, couch surfing, they’re a highly mobile population.”

This makes it difficult for them to be counted, but no matter the number, there is always an impact.