Discussion on the Homeless Youth Act (HF444)

Heather Keeler

Rep. Heather Keeler (DFL—4A) offered an overview of HF444 to open the discussion with the House Ways and Means Committee on Monday, February 6.

“This bill stems from the work that Chair Aisha Gomez and I did last session. We were lucky enough to actually have a Preventing Homelessness Division, that we spent two years [with], dedicated to understanding what the needs of Minnesota are, border-to-border. Often there’s messaging around just the Twin Cities, but as a Greater Minnesota member, as a border city member, I’m here to tell you that we experience homelessness across this entire state.”

Although it was not a comprehensive count, Keeler said there were 7,917 people experiencing homelessness on one day in January 2022.

Keeler said for “41 years I’ve been walking in this world as an Indigenous woman. We sit at many tables and hear about the disparities that people who look like me experience. Homelessness is massively one of them. I’m coming to you today with what I believe is a solution that we have been working on, creating a vehicle to start the investment in preventing homelessness. You all are a very powerful group of people. You lead tables and conversations that impact education, healthcare, public safety. I implore all of you, as we talk about preventing homelessness, you take it back to your tables and understand that all of you have an opportunity and a requirement to invest in ending homelessness.”

Keeler said the first need was to fund capital shelter — one-time funding for $150 million through 2028 to create bricks-and-mortar shelters, with 40 percent dedicated to Greater Minnesota. “If we don’t provide the supports in Greater Minnesota, [people] just end up funneling to the city, and we do better when we are in our own communities to get reconnected.”

The emergency service program is a $20 million ask, with $35 million ongoing, for grants to offer ongoing support, staffing, and resources for each community and shelter.

A pilot program would place youth, ages 18-24, in homes that would operate for a year and then be assessed. “Once we save individuals from a night of being out in the cold, then we help them understand the opportunity to transitional housing,” Keeler said. “This is a 36-month process that helps individuals like me who maybe didn’t have generations before me to teach me how to fiscally be sound or didn’t have generations before me to teach me how to be a homeowner. Transitional housing is an effort that actually helps people move from homelessness into long-term housing. That’s what we want to do.”

The Homeless Management Information System [HMIS] would be allocated funds to keep a protective system in place to collect data and analyze what aspects of the process is working well and what is not.

Chair Olson notes that the committee has both a fiscal note and tracking document on HF 444.

Member Discussion

Rep. Jim Nash (GOP–48A) asked how the $2.5 million in grants would be administered with guardrails to protect from unnecessary spending. Keeler responded that she would welcome conversations about guardrails to put in place, and that she trusts the agency to use the funds in appropriate ways.

Nash replied: “That is not the answer I was looking for or had expected. … It’s not my job to amend your bill since I’ll be voting against it, but I think that it would be good authorship to amend that in.”

Rep. John Petersburg (GOP–19B) was on the Preventing Homelessness Division and says he asked quite often the same question: “Where in this bill does it actually prevent the situation that caused the homelessness? And the reason I say that is important is if we don’t deal with that we’re going to have continually growing numbers that are going to need this service.”

Keeler responded that transitional housing is only a small piece that all people at the tables have to do to address homelessness.

Petersburg: Agreed that transitional housing is helpful, “but we haven’t done anything with the real root cause that happened before that … part of it is our own regulatory system and how, as a state, we’ve increased the cost of housing. Dealing with it after the fact is good, but dealing with it beforehand is better.”

Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL–District 62A) directed her first comments to Rep. Petersburg, “I do appreciate you asking people … how it is that we actually prevent homelessness. We have a critical shortage of housing that is affordable to families in this economy. Housing prices and the price of literally everything else has gone up and up and up, and wages have stagnated in our country for 30 or 40 years. Every gain that worker’s make in our economy gets offset by a $5 dozen of eggs, right? Nobody is under any illusion that this will end homelessness, it will prevent homelessness for people.”

Rep. Gomez also commented to Rep. Nash’s questions about the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) report. “If there is anybody in this committee who has not spoken to their local homelessness service provider about what it was like during COVID, I would urge you to go and talk to them. If you were serving in office during that time, you remember the intensity and all of the questions that we had to answer in the context of not knowing exactly what we were facing. But our emergency homelessness response programs across the State of Minnesota did this incredible fast transformation and saved people’s lives.”

Gomez added that the Emergency Services Program, which was a focus of the OLA report, went from moving around $1 million every few years to being the body in which most federal COVID relief funds were distributed across Minnesota. “They moved tens of millions of dollars through that program, out into the community, allowing our emergency shelter providers to move people into hotels, to isolate medically fragile people, to protect elders, to protect people who were sick with COVID.

“Read the OLA report. What they said was ‘they found not not one single dollar that had gone to a purpose other than helping to support our emergency shelter providers to save people’s lives … with no additional staff.”

— Rep. Aisha gomez

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL–61A) served on the Preventing Homelessness Division and appreciated that people directly impacted by the issue of homelessness spoke at the division hearings. He said he visited two facilities in his district “that deal specifically with homeless youth. One is called The Bridge. Chair Gomez, you’re absolutely right, people did heroic work and continue to do heroic work everyday under very, very challenging circumstances. And so to have this grant opportunity available, particularly for homeless youth, I think is really important.”

He added that transitional housing does prevent homelessness because they offer “wrap-around services” — related to jobs, childcare, education.

Rep. Mohamud Noor (DFL–60B) said this bill is an “opening. If you haven’t seen the people sleeping on the street. … If you recall last week, and this entire few months, the weather was so cold. … In my own district we had the largest encampment, more than 200 individuals, in a state-owned facility that was disbanded. If we can’t take care of those who need the most help, who are we taking care of? This is the moral obligation that we’re sent here to do.”

Rep. Cheryl Youakim (DFL–46B) said: “We all know that this isn’t the silver bullet that is going to end homelessness.” She reminded committee members that investments in education and workforce also are “part of preventing homelessness” and that all committee members have a responsibility to that. “This can’t always be a bandage approach, but we still have to stem the bleeding.”

Rep. Marion O’Neill (GOP–29B): Said there are no homeless shelters in her county. She said she used to work in the nonprofit sector, including “tremendous need” with the Buffalo food shelf.

Rep.  Nash indicates his ask about guardrails is that “process drives improvement. … Just because something happened great in the past, it doesn’t mean it necessarily will without some intervention and guardrails put in proactively. … Don’t infer that [he] was saying anything bad about the department.”

Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL–62B) said she has no concern on spending the money on the most vulnerable. “It is vulnerable people, people who are experiencing mental health issues, people who are experiencing the opioid crisis, people who are running away from domestic abuse. This is the right thing to do.”

She encouraged people to visit or volunteer at a shelter to understand the people facing these issues.

Rep. Pat Garofalo (GOP–58B), Minority House lead on the committee, jokingly said he was going to assign homework to committee members to visit the nearby Avivo Village in Minneapolis. “They are providing services to clients who are extraordinarily troubled. Many are battling substance abuse, mental health issues, and their primary focus is just to get people out of tents. They use the term tiny houses. I think it’s kind of a pejorative term. But what they’re just trying to do is get people indoors. …

“If nothing else, one of our responsibilities as legislators is to understand the diversity of problems and people in our state. I’m a white boy from Farmington. If I don’t seek this stuff out, I’m not going to see it. For me, it was a moving experience to see people who are literally saving people’s lives everyday and making very difficult choices. I would encourage people to do that.”

— Rep. Pat Garofalo

He added: “Two things can be true. You can be supportive of programs while also acknowledging that there are current problems with how we’re running things in Minnesota.” He wants to see “an inventory of the total amount of money that we are currently spending preventing and ending homelessness right now” before the bill goes to the floor.

Garofalo also noted that the Office of Legislative Auditor report was referenced, which uses the words “pervasive noncompliance,” suggesting that “agencies are failing to do the very basics of grant oversight. Whether well-intentioned or not, putting more money into these programs without proper compliance and oversight is asking for trouble.”

Chair Liz Olson (DFL–8A) renewed a motion to re-refer the bill to the General Register. The vote was: 17 yeas, 10 nays, 1 excused.