Homelessness in Minnesota

March 20, 2019



Written by: VISTA Leader



Every year, the 2nd week of March is celebrated as AmeriCorps week. The week helps recognize and connect current AmeriCorps members and alumni, and highlight the ongoing work in communities. For AmeriCorps Week 2019, observed March 10-16, the InterCorps Council of Minnesota featured various events around a central focus of homelessness. Many members of the College Health Corps VISTA program are working on efforts to help alleviate the crisis.

According to the 2015 Wilder Count, a statewide survey of people who are homeless or living in temporary housing programs conducted by Wilder Research, about 15,000 people experience homelessness in Minnesota on any given night. The homeless population faces additional barriers aside from a lack of housing. There are high levels of co-occurring health conditions and about 40% of homeless people do not have regular health care while about 1/3 do not have health insurance or are underinsured. Many are unable to sign up for health insurance without a permanent address.

Free clinics are essential for many people experiencing homelessness to receive care. College Health Corps VISTA member Erik Trelstad serves at Open Door Health Center (ODHC), a federally qualified community health center, in Mankato, MN. Though not a free clinic, ODHC accepts patients without insurance on a sliding fee system. Rates are determined on the individual’s income and household size. In addition to providing patients with medical care, community health workers are available to help provide resources around insurance enrollment, food, housing, and legal concerns. Through partnerships, Open Door is able to help patients address legal problems around housing concerns, such as poor housing conditions, eviction, and loss of rental assistance. Erik is working to increase the outreach services at ODHC, helping individuals learn about the different health benefit programs available and receive the care they need. These combined efforts enable and ensure patients receive well-rounded care, regardless of their permanent address. 

People experiencing homelessness are also often in need of basic necessities such as food, clothing, and transportation. College students are no exception to the hardships. In fact, the Wilder Count found that youth, aged 12-24, are the most at risk of experiencing homelessness. This past September, Crystal Yearous, the VISTA serving at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, MN, was able to attend the annual #RealCollege Conference. The opportunity allowed her to meet with other advocates across the U.S. to share and brainstorm models to best serve students. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, previously the Wisconsin Hope Lab, surveys college students at universities and community colleges through the #RealCollege survey every fall. The survey results are to inform colleges, and the communities the colleges are located in, about daily student experiences and how they meet basic needs. As found in the 2017 survey results, 36% of college students reported being housing insecure and another 36% said they were food insecure. Southwest Minnesota State University plans and prepares to participate in the #RealCollege survey this coming fall to gather student data.

As community colleges don’t often have on-campus housing, many students face barriers in securing safe and affordable accommodations. It’s no surprise that the 2017 #RealCollege survey identified higher numbers of insecurity when looking at responses from only community college students- 42% indicated they struggled to get adequate food and 46% said they struggled to pay for housing and utilities. Hinnah Ayub and Maura Dahl are VISTAs serving at Anoka Ramsey Community College and North Hennepin Community College respectively. Both have developed partnerships with housing advocates through the YMCA to streamline referrals for students. They have also organized workshops on their corresponding campuses for students to learn about resources around housing, healthy eating on a budget, financial literacy, and more. Since August 2018, efforts at Anoka Ramsey Community College have helped 239 individuals receive emergency food and 208 individuals access non-academic support services. Similarly, efforts at North Hennepin Community College have effectively connected 96 individuals to emergency food and 56 to non-academic support services. At South Central College (SCC), VISTA member Jessica Schisel also has been establishing relationships with local organizations to identify housing resources for students. With Jessica’s help, SCC was recently able to pilot their Campus Cupboard and Clothing Closet, serving students on both of South Central’s campuses in North Mankato and Fairbault helping find the resources they need to be successful. VISTAs serving at higher education institutions are able to help students increase their access to non-academic needs. This in turn helps students complete their education, achieve job stability, receive more income, and be able to afford stable housing.

As an AmeriCorps week focused on homelessness wraps up, the work of the College Health Corps VISTAs focused on addressing this issue, and many others, will continue. Findings from organizations such as the Wilder Foundation, and the #RealCollege surveys will only continue to shed light on the housing crisis across Minnesota and within our campus communities. The College Health Corps VISTA members use this data to continually inform the creation of sustainable improvements to help individuals across Minnesota live healthier lives.