For 20 years, Caroline Hood has been involved in the issue of homelessness, and the intersecting issues of mental illness, substance abuse, and re-entry into community after incarceration. From Arizona, to Los Angeles, to San Francisco, to New York — and now in the Twin Cities for four years after relocation with her Minnesotan husband — she knows the issue is spiking because of COVID-19. Evictions will be significant because of inability to pay rent in the coming months, since government safeguards have not been maintained to prevent it.
“Homelessness is a consequence of all these other systemic problems that we have to fix,” Hood says. “We need more than a patchwork approach to solutions. What are all the levers in systems that need to be addressed?”
Tent communities in the metro area are not new. The numbers are growing — with an estimated 100 encampments in public spaces around the Twin Cities.
“So much is tied to economic fallout, folks who have lost their jobs and lost their way of sustaining themselves and families because of COVID,” Hood says. “These are disproportionately people of color.”
One approach she saw, in cities like New York City and Los Angeles with large homeless populations, were to give people one-way bus tickets out of town. “Some politicians were praised for solving the homeless problem that way,” Hood reports. “It’s important to know that these encampments are communities of their own, stripped of all they have. They have created connection points of their own, which is so critical right now. Sending in police to simply shoo them away does not solve anything.”
In Los Angeles, Hood was eventually on the phone list of police officers, as part of a multi-disciplinary team that developed partnerships with the Santa Monica and Los Angeles police departments, with officers specifically assigned as “homeless liaisons.”
“They were fully police, but as part of this ‘beat’ they were instructed to do everything they could to engage homeless individuals and connect them with resources before an arrest was made. These officers came to trust and value our work. They saw these homeless individuals get housed and become stable.
“If a client was struggling, I would get a call and we would work together to prevent an arrest and move toward safe housing,” Hood says. “Simply doing a police arrest or movement is not a sustainable solution. Sending people scattering around Minnesota is not going to help anyone maintain housing and substance recovery. Substance abuse is a coping mechanism — maybe not a great one, we all have good and not-so-good outlets. Many people don’t have access to mental health tools that others do.”
Hood recognizes the difficulty in finding solutions that lay ahead. “Progressive neighborhoods find themselves in tension,” she says. “What is our stance if someone is shooting up in our backyard? These are often related to complex issues of generational poverty and systemic racism. The ‘collective we’ and our elected officials can’t just point the finger at the county, or the state, or the federal level. There needs to be a collective response. We are all cogs in this broken system, and we all have to change it.”
Getting one individual housed, Hood says, does not move the dial on community change — which needs to include pathways for advancement, low-barrier housing, job support, early education for kids so they get on track to eventually get strong jobs, support for parents to go back to work. As school starts this fall with distance learning, more parents will be struggling — people are having to make choices in this weird crisis moment.”
As someone who has seen many cities deal with complexities like this, Hood sees the Twin Cities “saturated with non-profit people doing great work.”
To create effective solutions, Hood says, “community-based organizations have to be part of the conversation, research, government, and client voices. If all members are not at the table then it won’t work.”
One issue is that so many organizations end up competing against each other for funding. “Foundations all mean well,” Hood says, “but it is competitive, and often about who has the lowest budget, and who can do the most with the least. Non-profits fail in many ways because there is so much altruism involved in serving clients. That comes with financial constraints that are not reimbursed.”
In short, organizations trying to help families who are struggling end up struggling themselves.
The good news from Hood’s perspective, however, is that this point in history in the Twin Cities and Minnesota is a great opportunity for change. “There is such energy for change, and I do not see it going away. We can take the aftermath of the protests and all the crises we are seeing and say ‘yes, we are going to solve this. We are no longer going to turn around and ignore it. This is not acceptable to us anymore.’”
Caroline Hood recommends readers learn about the complexity involved in homelessness situations and ask loudly for reform. “It won’t change overnight,” Hood says. “Use your vote, take part in the election process, volunteer with many great organizations that have strong boards and community stakeholder input. Be a voice for equity, and open to listening.”
Hood is leading an effort, as President and CEO of RS EDEN, to open ground on an 80-unit affordable housing complex in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis in mid-October, in an area near the Hiawatha light rail transportation system. Government tax credits, cash reserves of donors, and philanthropy have enable the project to happen.
RS EDEN has been working with individuals since 1971, and operates more than 500 units of permanent, supportive housing; 32 units of transitional housing; reentry halfway houses for men and women; residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment programs for men, women and families; a drug testing lab; a “sentence to service” alternative to incarceration; and more.
Minnesota Women’s Press is developing an Action = Change Guide about the homelessness issue for readers who want to learn more and take actions of support. Can you support this effort by contributing to our COVID-19 storytelling fund, which enables us to do deeper reporting about issues impacted by the pandemic.