ST. PAUL — The number of people experiencing homelessness is on the rise in Minnesota, especially among older adults, according to a study released Wednesday, March 25.

The findings are part of St. Paul’s Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s annual examination of the state’s homeless population, which includes a deeper look at the demographics of the people who find themselves in the cohort as well the reasons why.

The study found a 10 percent increase among those experiencing homelessness across the state between 2015 and 2018, based on its point-in-time methodology, which counts the number of people who don’t have homes on a single night in October.

The study also uncovered a 25 percent increase in the number of people age 55 and over experiencing homelessness, and a 62 percent jump in the number of people who were not staying in a shelter, meaning they were either staying outside or temporarily doubling up with someone else.

Thirty two-percent of respondents said they had been turned away from shelters in the previous three months that were too full to take them, while 33 percent reported staying the night on a bus, light-rail train, or transit station in the past year.

‘Stretching an already fragile system’

Those findings are particularly troubling as shelters have already started to see a substantial increase in demand for services since the spread of coronavirus, according to Tracy Berglund, senior director of housing stability for Catholic Charities.

“COVID-19 is stretching an already fragile system,” Berglund said, noting that people no longer have the option to ride the bus or light-rail overnight amid the shutdown.

The nonprofit has also seen an increase in demand for its “pay-for-stay” rooms by cooks, dishwashers, servers and others who have lost employment due to the pandemic.

“It’s all just cascading out,” she said.

Chronic health disorders

The study found that 81 percent of adults experiencing homelessness have a chronic physical health condition, while 64 percent struggle with mental illness and 24 percent substance use disorders. Fifty percent have co-occurring disorders.

The high number of chronic physical health disorders didn’t surprise Berglund, who said staff at the nonprofit’s shelters in Minneapolis and St. Paul have to increasingly try and find bottom bunk space to accommodate older, ailing clients.

While all of those living in confined shelters are vulnerable to coronavirus, those individuals are in particular. That reality prompted both Ramsey and Hennepin counties to prepare facilities to isolate and quarantine people experiencing homelessness who contract the virus or become symptomatic.

Hennepin County is isolating about 12 people at its facility; four people with fevers are being isolated in a medical respite inside Higher Ground in St. Paul while Ramsey County works to open its own facility.

Another notable finding in the study is the continued over-representation of African American and American Indians in the state’s homeless population, Berglund said.

Prevalence of childhood trauma

The study also noted the prevalence of childhood trauma and among those experiencing homelessness, and found that 6 in 10 adults without homes have experienced physical or sexual violence.

And, the study highlighted how difficult it is to climb out of homelessness with limited affordable housing available statewide.

To that end, Berglund emphasized the need to continue to try and increase shelter capacity while simultaneously investing in more affordable housing.

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