Affordable housing efforts continue, COVID-19 places spotlight on need

| March 26, 2020 | 0 Comments

A day of lobbying legislators to increase assistance to the homeless and create more affordable housing in Minnesota drew more than 950 people to the State Capitol in St. Paul March 11.

“We’ve been increasing our attendance year after year because the challenge continues to grow,” said Rhonda Otteson, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, which organized Homeless Day on the Hill.

The event was held just two days before Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime emergency in Minnesota as the number of people contracting a novel coronavirus and the illness it causes, COVID-19, grew in the state. Now, bars, restaurants and other venues are closed; groups larger than 10 are discouraged.

“We came in under the wire with this (COVID-19) breaking open,” Otteson said, adding that the homeless are among populations particularly vulnerable to the virus because they spend time in shared spaces. Being aware of their needs in this medical emergency is another part of the work of advocacy and service organizations, she said.

“It comes from compassion and helping each other,” said Otteson, whose group continues to lobby for a pre-COVID-crisis $15 million increase in the $1.7 million already allocated to help keep homeless shelters running, as well as $50 million in bonds to preserve and expand emergency shelters and $500 million in bonds for affordable housing.

Now faced with COVID-19, Otteson’s group, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and other advocates and service providers for the homeless are urging state lawmakers to fully fund the needs they laid out for this legislative session, which opened Feb. 11, while including homeless shelters in COVID-19-related health care funding that is being afforded hospitals and other medical centers.

GRATEFUL HEARTSHard luck, bad choices, ill health, lost jobs.

These are among many reasons people find themselves on the street, without a home. Their stories vary every bit as much as their personalities and life experiences.

The Catholic Spirit spoke with two people who struggled with homelessness but found assistance through Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Their stories reflect some of the challenges faced by the more than 10,000 people across Minnesota who are homeless on any given night, and some of the good people who help them.

Rick Fisher, left, and Nigel Sharper, a Catholic Charities case worker, at the nonprofit’s Opportunity Center in St. Paul. JOE RUFF | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

“It’s tears of joy. It’s tears of accomplishment. It’s the tears of looking back on what we’ve been through,” said Patience Kollie, who struggled to get the words out as she shared her family’s story. She and her fiancé, John Spinola, and their two young children couch-hopped and lived in their car for a month last summer, seeking a place to live after their landlord in St. Paul decided to renovate and doubled their rent.

Stress and difficulties with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder led Kollie, 35, to take medical leave from her job as a personal care assistant. They couldn’t make ends meet.

“Life was so hard,” Kollie said. “I didn’t want to eat. I went into depression. I had high blood pressure. … It’s not easy out there for people who don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Finally, they found the Family Service Center in Maplewood operated by Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. There they had shelter, activities for their children, life skills training and parenting tips. Kollie returned to work, they qualified for a housing program, and in December moved into a duplex, also in St. Paul.

“It’s a house!” Kollie said. “It’s a dream house. You have to see it. I’m so grateful for FSC. FSC is the root of the blessing.”

Rick Fisher, 59, has always been a bit of a scrapper, stealing cars as a youngster in St. Paul, spending time in, and escaping from, juvenile detention centers. A construction worker who worked and played hard and drank too much, he framed houses and traveled the country cleaning up and restoring homes after natural disasters.

Too often away from his wife and family, with his body beat up from work and alcohol, his life came crashing down in 2007. He lost his job, marriage, house and family.

“I totally just folded,” Fisher said. “By 2008 I was a mess.”

He nearly died in a hospital one evening after drinking enough to put his blood alcohol level at nearly 5%; legally drunk is 0.08%.

“It was in the wintertime,” Fisher said. “I almost fell over the Jackson Street bridge. I was having heart problems anyway, so when the blood alcohol level came back 4.9 percent, I said, ‘Am I going to die?’”

He found help at Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Place, a shelter and social services center in St. Paul for the homeless and people at risk of homelessness. He sobered up and receives government rental and medical assistance. A Catholic Charities’ case manager, Nigel Sharper, helps him keep on top of the paperwork and his many health issues, including depression, arthritis and back pain, chronic bronchitis and plantar fasciitis — severe pain in his feet.

“It’s been a humbling experience all the way around,” Fisher said. “It keeps me focused and grounded to talk about it. A lot of people aren’t grateful or aren’t aware of what they have until they lose it.”

People at Catholic Charities treat him and others with dignity, he said.

“I never felt shamed or disregarded,” Fisher said. “They’ve treated me better than some of my friends and family. This isn’t a proud thing. But it does provide. You’re not out on the street, smelly and dirty. Just having clean clothes and a quiet conversation with someone …”

In a March 16 letter to legislative leadership, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless also urged lawmakers to provide more funding during the health care crisis to the state’s homeless prevention and assistance program and to temporarily suspend evictions and utility shutoffs.

COVID-19 concerns are not expected to play into longer-term efforts to create affordable housing and the bonds needed to make that happen, Catholic Charities officials and Otteson said.

But how it all plays out this session is up in the air, she said.

“Everybody had high hopes going into the (legislative) session,” Otteson said of state lawmakers opening the second half of their two-year session expecting to adjourn May 18. “The thought now is the Legislature could move quickly or adjourn early.”

Top House and Senate leaders from both parties are scaling back activity at the State Capitol at least through April 14. In those weeks, committee meetings and floor sessions will be held on an on-call basis, and meetings needed to pass essential legislation will be held only in space that allow people to be 6 feet apart.

Compassion for the homeless and others in need drives the work done by social service agencies, builders of affordable housing, parishes and organizations such as Minnesota Catholic Conference, which represents the public policy interests of the state’s Catholic bishops. It drives members of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Otteson’s group and Homes for All, a statewide coalition of those groups and more than 200 other organizations.

MCC, a co-sponsor of Homeless Day on the Hill, supports Walz’s effort to ease the financial strain of the coronavirus crisis with a one-time $500 cash payment to struggling families through the Minnesota Family Investment Program, said Jason Adkins, the conference’s executive director.

MCC also supports the broader Homes for All agenda, which advocates for affordable housing and emergency shelters, rental assistance for adults with mental illness, and collaborative efforts among schools, local governments and housing organizations to help homeless students and their families find places to live.

“It is a broad agenda, built around the conviction that adequate housing is needed to protect the dignity of our most vulnerable citizens and create the housing stability needed to climb the ladder out of poverty,” Adkins said.

The Joint Religious Legislative Coalition held its first-ever Christ on Capitol Hill session Feb. 20 on affordable housing and homelessness, inviting priests, deacons, rabbis, men and women in religious orders and other faith leaders. The opportunity to learn about the challenges of homelessness and discuss strategies for addressing lawmakers drew 120 people from around the state, said Anne Krisnik, JRLC’s executive director and a member of Lumen Christi in St. Paul.

“If we truly believe that everyone should live with dignity, then they should have a safe place to stay and a place to live,” she said.

Krisnik knows something about the issues firsthand: For more than 20 years, she has helped make dinners once a month at Catholic Charities’ Family Shelter in Maplewood.

The governor has demonstrated commitment to helping the homeless, advocates said. Responding to the state’s growing need for affordable housing, which was highlighted by an October 2018 study showing a record 10,000 Minnesotans were without a home, Walz proposed a record $276 million in bonds for housing this session.

“I think it’s a fantastic place to start,” Otteson said of the governor’s bonding proposal. Still, Otteson’s coalition and other groups are seeking $500 million in such bonds.

In December, Walz launched the Minnesota Homeless Fund, a public and private partnership to raise money for overnight shelters. Supporters raised $4.82 million in a matter of weeks, and they have

brought $2.6 million to bear on 25 proposals that will add 240 nightly shelter beds in the Twin Cities and 98 in other areas of Minnesota.

The issues are more complicated than putting up homes people can afford, Otteson said. Many homeless have other needs, such as mental health care, getting their children to school and saving the money needed to place a down payment on a house or a deposit on an apartment, she said.

Educating the public about the plight of the homeless has taken other forms in just the past few months. On Jan. 14, St. Paul-based Catholic

Community Foundation held a Giving Insights forum in Minneapolis on homelessness that featured Cathy ten Broeke, assistant commissioner and executive director of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, and Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, among others. And on Feb. 24, before Minnesota’s first confirmed case of coronavirus illness March 6, Marx wrote an opinion piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune stating in part: “The governor is proposing a record state capital investment in housing. Let’s get it passed.”

In an interview with The Catholic Spirit before the COVID-19 pandemic, Marx said emergency shelters were stretched thin. He commended the governor’s public-private partnership to raise money, but said more is needed. “The charitable sector is unable to ramp up enough to sustain the whole system,” he said. “We’re going to need more government help.”

Marx closed the conversation by suggesting one way that everyone, no matter their circumstances, can help. “We should not underestimate,” he said, “and we should rely on the power of prayer.”

The state of homelessness and housing in Minnesota

This is the final installment of The Catholic Spirit’s four-part series on homelessness and affordable housing in Minnesota. The series began Feb. 7, 2019, by highlighting Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Higher Ground initiatives in both cities. It continued May 16 with a look at the record number of people without a home in the state, and ways parishes help provide temporary shelter, affordable housing and meet other needs. An Oct. 24 report detailed efforts to create affordable housing in the suburbs and the way faith-filled Catholics step up in their communities as advocates for those searching for a home.

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