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Suburbia’s Growing Homelessness Problem

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(credit: Jupiter Images)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Homelessness is not just an urban problem, as some Twin Cities suburban counties report a striking surge in the number of people without a place to live.

While the homeless population this year is down in Ramsey County, other east metro suburban counties such as Dakota, Anoka and Washington are reporting growth, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Tuesday.

In Dakota County, homelessness rose 27 percent this year compared with 2009. Anoka County reports a 31 percent increase while Washington County saw an 11 percent rise.

For the second year in a row, Dakota County has increased the bed-count at Cochran House, a men’s shelter in Hastings. The shelter now has room for 65 men after the county increased its bed-count 55 percent this month to meet growing demand.

“A lot of people — when the economy was at its worst — went on unemployment,” said Dennis Price, supervisor of housing and resource development at Dakota County.

“Now that is running out,” Price said. “Our people aren’t getting back on their feet yet.”

The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, which surveys Minnesota’s homeless every three years, counted 9,654 homeless adults and children statewide in October 2009. That’s a 25 percent jump from 2006.

“There’s a large variation — a range of folks and their characteristics — who are using shelters today,” said Greg Owen, consulting scientist at the Wilder Foundation, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.

While many blame the state’s increase in homelessness on high unemployment and a lack of affordable housing, the Wilder Foundation study also shows that health issues, criminal pasts and addiction continue to be major factors.

For the past three years, homelessness has risen in Anoka County’s suburbs. An annual count Jan. 26 found 1,461 men, women, and children without homes throughout the county — a 31 percent increase from 2009, according to its Point in Time study.

“Our suburban homelessness looks different,” said Karrie Schaaf, youth development director for the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids. Unlike many metro areas, Schaaf said, the suburban homeless are “hidden rather than sleeping on the street corner.”

But there is a bright spot in the figures. Anoka County reported a 58 percent drop among homeless youth 17 or younger. Officials credit that decline to efforts in the schools to raise awareness about the problem, Schaaf said.

In Dakota County, the latest count Jan. 26 of homelessness reported 841 individuals, said Marsha Milgrom, the county’s resource developer and contract manager. Eighty people had not had a home for more than a year or were homeless at least three times in the past four years. Such long-term homelessness rose 54 percent from 2009.

Nickolas Conrad fits the long-term homeless profile. Since July, the 40-year-old has lived in a four-person dorm room at Cochran House, the men’s shelter in Hastings.

Conrad has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction since he was 15. The former St. Paul man became homeless in 2001 and eventually found himself at the Cochran House after finishing a drug and alcohol program. This month, Conrad celebrated a year of sobriety — his longest stretch ever. He credits being at the shelter, which does not allow drugs or alcohol, with helping him stay sober.

“I guess the bottom line is, I believe if it wasn’t for this shelter — I’d be in prison or dead,” he said. “I look at this place as a blessing. They’re really helping me with self-esteem by having a place to lay my head, and the confidence that I’ll have a place to lay tomorrow.”

 

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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