Humanizing Homelessness at the Capitol

On March 15, more than 500 community members, organizations, and individuals experiencing homelessness converged on the State Capitol with a single purpose – advocating for solutions and funding to end homelessness in Minnesota.

Organized by the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, this year’s annual Homeless Day on the Hill recorded its largest turnout ever!

Our Saviour’s Housing played its part representing district 62A of South Minneapolis. Staff, as well as a current resident in our Transitional Housing Program, brought the stories of those who struggle with homelessness to life in legislators’ offices. For Rex, our resident, civic engagement comes naturally; he was elected as a delegate in the primary caucuses earlier this month. He spoke candidly about his background, explaining that he and people like him, “Don’t want help…they want self-empowerment.”

This year’s lobby efforts focused on three main issues: raising bonds to invest in affordable housing, increasing assistance for working families, and restoring voting rights for ex-offenders. While there have been signs in recent years that efforts to end homelessness are working, there is still a lot of work to be done. The Wilder Institute’s 2015 count of homeless individuals in Minnesota indicate that total numbers have dropped 9% since 2012. Yet, the population of homeless adults 55 years and older has increased 8% statewide and by 21% in the Twin Cities metro area. The push for increased affordable housing aims, in part, to provide more opportunities for senior citizens, especially as our general population ages.

We met first with State Senator Jeff Hayden. A woman who had formerly been homeless began by telling her story, emphasizing how difficult it can be to navigate the housing system. A representative of a housing complex confirmed a one-to-two-year waitlist for affordable senior housing. Senator Hayden then pointed to one unexpected impact of a growing economy – rising rents that price people out of their homes. He also noted that the amount spent on the new Vikings stadium alone could pay for the affordable housing bonds.

In our next meeting, State Representative Karen Clark highlighted the significance of everyday Minnesotans sharing their experiences, stating that, “two or three stories can make all the difference.” Homelessness is often considered an “urban issue,” but when legislators from greater Minnesota hear from their constituents, they learn that the problem is relevant across the state. Representative Clark agreed that we need more public funding to fight homelessness and asked for our contact information so we could offer testimony at a later hearing.

Homeless Day on the Hill offers a real chance for ordinary citizens to engage in the political process, make their voices heard, and advocate for policies that support vulnerable Minnesotans. Even when legislators already agree, it’s still important that they receive support from their constituents. More than anything else, though, advocacy makes the political personal. As Rex observed when he explained why he wanted to participate,

“It makes [people experiencing homelessness] a little more human and real. They’re not just statistics…there’s a story.”

Of course, advocacy doesn’t begin or end with one day of the year. We must continue the conversations, the story sharing, the gathering together as a community – when we do, we can make ending homelessness a reality.