Expert Q & A | September 26, 2007
Commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency
What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
One of the most significant emerging issues in homelessness policy is prisoner re-entry. According to the Council on State Governments, in our country each year, more than 650,000 people are released from state prisons, and an estimated nine million from jails. In my state of Minnesota, the prison population increased 27 percent in the five years from 2002-2007, and 95 percent of incarcerated offenders return to the community. What happens to offenders who return home? Too many re-offend (36percent in Minnesota) – and there is a high correlation between homelessness and the risk of offending. In a study of 50,000 people who were released from New York State prisons and returned to New York City in the mid-90s, the risk of re-incarceration increased 23 percent with a pre-release shelter stay and 17 percent with a post-release stay. These numbers show the importance of re-entry planning, as both a public safety and a budget concern. The best re-entry planning will combine the expertise and resources of a broad spectrum of state and local agencies. These include education and employment because they can provide tools for equipping those released to re-engage with the community through work, as well as health and human services because so many offenders have physical health, mental health, chemical dependency and income support challenges. Housing finance agencies can help in designing, locating and funding housing for offenders, especially when offenders are to be re-integrated into community housing, whether single- or scattered-site. There is good news in that the issue of re-entry is garnering attention from corrections, housing, human services, public health and mental health professionals. There is new energy around working together to solve an issue that touches so many families, neighborhoods and taxpayers.
What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
The lack of a strong and sustained federal commitment to rental assistance through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program and to maintaining the viability of the nation’s traditional public housing stock. Although the state of Minnesota and many communities throughout the state have been aggressive in developing and implementing plans to prevent and end homelessness, the lack of federal commitment is making it difficult to successfully implement those plans. Since Minnesota’s Business Plan to End Long-Term Homelessness was launched in 2004, the state has committed over $100 million in new state appropriations and Housing Finance Agency resources to implement the Plan. As a result, implementation of Minnesota’s plan is ahead of schedule. However, unless additional federal rental assistance is forthcoming, the ability to sustain the housing opportunities made available under the Plan is in doubt. See, Douglas Rice and Barbara Sard, “Cuts in Federal Housing Assistance are Undermining Community Plans to End Homelessness,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), February 2007.
How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
One of my first volunteer activities through my church in the mid-1980s was a mentoring program to provide support for formerly homeless adults. One individual, another Tim, was mentored by a number of us, but could not find the right housing situation, ended up back on the streets, and we never heard from him again. Fast forward 20 years and I have the opportunity to lead Minnesota Housing. I have learned about the successes of innovative supportive housing programs and find there is the public will and capacity to end homelessness by providing permanent housing solutions. I have often thought of how Tim would have benefited from supportive housing.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
From those experiencing homelessness—all of us, or someone we love, are a few strokes of bad luck or a few unfortunate decisions away from being with them; and from direct housing and service providers—whose compassion and ability to see and value the humanity of those they serve each day.
Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
Because so many good, smart, and hard working people from just about every perspective and sector I can think of are working on it with both compassion and a passion for results.
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