Earlier this week, I attended the Visible Child Funders’ Briefing titled How are the Children? A Deeper Look at Families that are Homeless in the Twin Cities. The Visible Child Initiative was launched by the Family Housing Fund in partnership with the Supportive Housing Provider Group and the Family Supportive Housing Center in 2005 in order to raise the visibility of children and families in the community.
This briefing, organized by Amy Crawford from the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation and Colleen O’Keefe from Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation, gathered funders from across the Twin Cities metro concerned with homeless children and families to learn about the latest research and hear from practitioners working in the field.
Since 1991, Wilder Research has conducted an unprecedented study on homelessness in Minnesota “to better understand the causes, circumstances and effects of homelessness, and to promote efforts toward permanent, affordable housing for all Minnesotans.” Every three years, more than 1,000 volunteers conduct interviews with people living in shelters, transitional housing programs, drop-in service locations, and non-shelter locations such as encampments and abandoned buildings across the state. In conjunction with the release of the 2006 findings, Wilder Research also produced an Emmy-nominated documentary called Homeless Youth: Finding Home. These videos explore the circumstances that lead youth to become homeless, the challenges they face when they are homeless, and the services available to them.
The statistics from the 2009 report are shocking. For the Visible Child Funders’ Briefing, Greg Owen and Ellen Shelton from Wilder Research did further analysis of the findings to focus on children and families. Since the 2006 study, there was a 25% increase in Minnesota’s homeless population, mostly associated with the downturn in the economy. Of the homeless population interviewed for this study, 47% were under the age of 22. Of the children with parents or unaccompanied minors, 47% were ages 0 to 5. Despite the dramatic increase in the number of homeless unaccompanied youth (up 57% since 2006), shelter capacity for youth is relatively unchanged since 2003 and the largest increase in shelter turnaways occurred among youth. Especially striking is how homelessness spans generations: 34% of the homeless parents in this study report being homeless as children.
Even with the dramatic increase in the incidence of homelessness in Minnesota there are key, persistent characteristics within this population:
- Racial disparities
- Multiple health issues
- Barriers to obtaining and maintaining housing
- Domestic violence among women and children
- History of placement or incarceration
African Americans and American Indians make up a disproportionate percentage of Minnesota’s homeless population. While African Americans make up 4% of Minnesota’s general population, they constitute 41% of the homeless adults and 43% of homeless minors (ages 12 to 17) in the state. While this report did not include the interviews conducted on Minnesota’s reservations, 11% of the homeless adults and 20% of the homeless minors in this study were American Indian (Wilder Research plans to release a report later this year on the interviews conducted on reservations). Racial disparities have existed in Minnesota’s homeless population for decades, which prompted the Infant Toddler Discovery Project to release a report in 2009 called Culture Matters: The Importance of Cultural Knowledge When Working with Families Who Have Experienced Homelessness (pdf).
Domestic violence is another circumstance that leads many women and children to be homeless. Of the homeless mothers interviewed, 52% were physically or sexually abused as a child or youth. Of the 30% of mothers that reported fleeing from domestic violence, over half had children with them. In the case of homeless minors, 38% were physically abused, 20% were sexually abused, and 27% chose to stay in an abusive situation because they had no access to other housing.
Join the conversation:
When presented with statistics like these, it is easy to be daunted by the magnitude of homelessness. It is a systemic issue deeply tied to the legacy of institutional racism and exacerbated by health concerns, family violence, and barriers to re-housing. However, funders and practitioners continue to gather and collaborate on this topic in order to end homelessness. Amy Crawford and Colleen O’Keefe asked the participants in the room to reflect on the following questions that you can think about at your own organization or foundation:
- What is the new data telling you about the needs of homeless children and families?
- What needs to be done?
- What concrete action could you take today to move forward in addressing these issues within your organization?
- What are some possible ways that funders can work together to address these issues?
-Stephanie Jacobs, MCF member services manager