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Legal Learning: Are there homeless people in Lake County?

From James H. Manahan, J.D.

Are there homeless people in Lake County? I haven’t seen anyone sleeping under bridges, living in cardboard boxes, or lying on the sidewalk in sleeping bags (as can be seen in big cities).

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However, the answer to the question is YES, according to Tara Golden, director of North Shore Horizons in Two Harbors. She says there are two types of homelessness here.

Some of the homeless people in Lake County are not very visible. Their home has been foreclosed, or they’ve lost their job and can’t pay the rent, or their wage earning spouse has left them. They are living now (at least temporarily) in a hunting shack, a tent, an ice house, a car, or on a couch in a friend’s or relative’s home. We don’t notice them.

But another type of homeless person has left their home because it is not safe to remain. These people, who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, are also homeless according to Golden, and need to find safe housing.

Some of these are fleeing their abuser and need crisis housing. Last year there were such victims from ten households in Lake County (13 adults and 3 children) whom North Shore Horizons placed in crisis safe housing, usually for two or three days. This gave the victims time to report crimes to the police (if they wished), get an order for protection (if they wished), and make more permanent living arrangements. But Golden says that another 177 adults and 116 children, victims of domestic or sexual violence, sought services last year but did not ask for emergency housing.

North Shore Horizons has room for some of these homeless people on a longer term basis, including six apartments next to their office in Two Harbors and three offsite units. These range from two bedroom units that are transitional (up to 2 years), two or three bedroom units that are available for up to 5 years, and smaller apartments that can be permanent housing for people with a disabling condition. All those who are helped are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault in Lake County, and must meet low income guidelines. The rent is subsidized – tenants pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income as rent, and the balance is paid by grants from the federal government (HUD), the Housing and Redevelopment Authority of Two Harbors, the Hearth Connection, and the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency (which gets a grant from HUD).

Last year North Shore Horizons placed people from 14 households (18 adults and 16 children) in transitional or permanent housing. However, they had to turn away 62 homeless adults and 62 children for lack of space.

According to the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a family in Lake County must earn at least $12.42 an hour to afford a modest two bedroom apartment and not pay over 30% of their income for rent and utilities.

That’s more than the $9.50 minimum wage that the legislature just approved, and leaves a lot of people out – 52% of renters in Lake County can’t afford to rent a two bedroom apartment unless they work on average 69 hours a week.

Recently the Duluth City Council unanimously passed a “Homeless Bill of Rights.” It states that all people, including the homeless, are guaranteed “freedom from discrimination in education, employment, public services, public accommodations, movement, worship, speech and participation in the democratic process regardless of housing status.” Further, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for . . . health and well-being . . . including food, clothing and housing.”

The Minnesota legislature is working on a bill that would grant $100 million for affordable housing in the state.

“It’s a cost to society to have 14,000 homeless Minnesotans on any given night,” Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the bill’s author, said. “There are moral and compassionate issues to fighting homelessness. But it’s also a dollars-and-cents issue. The bonding bill has to gain the approval of a supermajority — 60 percent in the House — to pass, and that isn’t going to be easy,” she added. If passed, funding would be awarded by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency through a competitive grant process.

Nearly half of Minnesota’s homeless population — people who do not have permanent places to stay — are people under 21, according to a Wilder Foundation study. It’s time for Minnesota to extend a helping hand to them. After all, it’s not a crime to be homeless.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author.