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Homelessness result of 'dysfunctional society,' testifiers say

A DWI on his record has made it difficult for Kevin Forno to find housing after becoming homeless about seven years ago.

He was eventually able to rent a room at a smaller, privately owned house, but said a lot of larger companies won't rent to people with criminal records.

"It's just black and white. There's no gray area with these places," said Forno, who works at Churches United, a Moorhead-based coalition of congregations that serve people experiencing homelessness. "We deserve to be out in the community, too. [People with criminal records] have paid their debt to society. It's time to move on. Maybe some of them will mess up again, but a lot of us don't."

Forno and nine others told personal stories and urged lawmakers to act during Wednesday's meeting of the House Preventing Homelessness Division.

House Preventing Homelessness Division 01/20/21

Testifiers urged legislators to fund support services, such as mental health and chemical dependency treatment, and to work to preserve naturally affordable housing. They also asked House members to remember their stories as they work this session.

"The homeless are not a blemish on society," Anita Reyes said. "They are a result of a dysfunctional society. Do not think of those in need as a burden, but as a blessing."

At least 7,600 Minnesotans experience homelessness on any given night, according to the Interagency Council on Homelessness. Significantly more Minnesotans are "precariously" housed and only a crisis away from homelessness, the agency says.

Central to the issue is a lack of affordable housing, advocates say. More than 60% of the state's low-income renters are severely cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing.

Testifiers talked about the need for better support services for people experiencing homelessness.

Jase Roe, a case manager at Homeward Bound, a 50-bed shelter in Minneapolis for Native American adults and who was previously homeless, said he sees a lot of youth addicted to fentanyl.

Delecia McCain, a life-skills advocate at Stepping Stone Emergency Housing in Anoka, said having more mental health workers and drug counselors would benefit residents.

"As advocates, we're not equipped with a lot of the resources for mental health and drug problems," she said.

Other speakers urged the Legislature to focus on youth and said that COVID-19 relief funds have been crucial.

Linda Soderstrom, said lawmakers need to be mindful about developers looking to make a quick profit off naturally occurring affordable housing.

Rep. Liz Reyer (DFL-Eagan) called on lawmakers to address the root causes of homelessness, adding that "we're falling short" in terms of education, mental health supports and more.

Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL-Mpls), the division chair, said it is meaningful to see how many people who experience homelessness are helping to serve that population.

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