Housing First

Posted on February 10, 2020

A recent hearing of the Minnesota House of Representatives Housing Committee probed the intersection of mental illness and housing. I expected to hear stories of despair and facts about dire shortages. I wasn’t disappointed, but people who told their stories about how their lives were turned around when they finally found a safe place to live moved me to tears.

The Problem

Among adults and youth experiencing homelessness in Minnesota, 64 percent have a serious mental illness, according to Wilder Research. Nearly one-third of homeless adults work, but housing costs rose more than their incomes, per Metropolitan Council data. Between 2000 and 2015, rents across the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Region increased approximately 13 percent while renters’ incomes decreased by 3 percent. This is difficult for everyone but especially people with serious mental illness who are much less apt to be employed. Compounding that problem is the fact that the availability of rental vouchers is at an all-time low.

Hearing Testifiers

  • Catholic Charities summed the situation up well. “Mental illness is not the cause of homelessness. Lack of affordable housing is.”

  • Many of our students and their families are living in shelters and cars or unheated storage units, fish houses and campers without electricity, St. Paul Public Schools representatives stated.

  • 100 percent of the clients at Ujamaa Place are homeless, their CEO testified. This agency works to help young African American men who have been incarcerated They can’t get a GED, a job or address their mental health or substance abuse issues or restore needed family ties without first having a place to live, he said.

  • “Supportive housing is the long-term solution,” the CEO of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative stated unequivocally. Beacon represents over 100 churches. Housing needs to be deeply affordable, the kind that is available for people living at or below 30 percent of the Area Median Income, she said. Supportive housing means having wrap-around services that could be located in a single building with community and a front desk or at scattered-site apartment buildings in the private realm.

  • Other testifiers joined Beacon in calling for services and not just housing. Even those who manage to obtain an apartment could be evicted if they aren’t tending to their mental illness, becoming a burden for their neighbors or landlords. A representative of Guild Incorporated said that homelessness begins not with mental illness, but because of failures in other systems, including the mental health system. Working with landlords of people with serious mental illness in order to avert evictions is one of their case workers’ biggest roles.

Personal Stories

Two testifiers brought tears to many eyes, including those of the committee chair and mine.

  • A pony-tailed man told of being homeless from the age of 15 and for the next 34 years. He slept wherever he could, including riding freight trains and in jail. After four suicide attempts in one year, he was able to get help for his mental illness and then secure his own apartment. He said he now has a fulltime job, a truck, a “good woman” and is on the board of directors for his housing agency. He told his story with ease but broke down when he tried to describe what it means to him to have his own place to sleep and to keep his things—and his very own key.

  • A young woman told her story about being homeless on Christmas Eve. She and her young daughter were trying to stay warm in her car when a police officer knocked on the window. She was fearful at first because she hadn’t had good experiences with police, but after she rolled down the window, she and her daughter soon found themselves in a warm place with food and even a present for her daughter. The officers helped them get help and eventually a place to live.

Success stories, but there are way too many failures.


It doesn’t have to be that way according to Finland’s experience. Ten years ago their way of dealing with homeless people mirrored that of most other countries. Their system consisted of one-night and short-term accommodations and that didn’t work. Today their number of homeless people has decreased significantly. The reason? Housing First. People who are homeless receive – without prerequisites – a small apartment and advice (social workers assist by providing that advice in every building). This allows four out of five affected people to create a stable life. And it’s cheaper for the country than homelessness, they say, because they have cut way down on emergencies: attacks, injuries, breakdowns. The police, health and justice systems save money.


In Minnesota, we have a long way to go. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of people experiencing homelessness went up 10 percent, Wilder Research found. If we don’t want to just consider the human need, we could also look at cost saving. Taxpayers receive a return of 1.44 to 1 in public funding for supportive housing, Wilder estimates.

We could be like Finland. We know what we are doing isn’t keeping up with the need. We are falling further and further behind. We know what needs to be done. Let’s do it.