By Lee Egerstrom
Homelessness and near-homelessness are continuing problems at six Ojibwe reservations in northern Minnesota, and was before the coronavirus epidemic reached Minnesota causing losses of jobs and incomes and forcing people to seek inadequate housing or “double-up” with friends and relatives.
A survey by Wilder Research of residents at collaborating northern reservations conducted in 2018 found at least 2,315 people who researchers classified as homeless, or “near-homeless.”
The situation has undoubtedly gotten worse since the October survey that year, said Nicole MartinRogers, senior research manager and Minnesota Reservation Homeless Study co-director at Wilder.
With COVID-19 shutting businesses, she said, “We know people have lost homes, can’t afford rents and are doubling-up with friends and relatives.”
Researchers define homeless as people staying in a shelter, transitional housing, or in a place not intended for housing; those who face eviction and have no place to go, and those temporarily staying with others – called doubled-up – with their continued housing considered precarious.
Wilder goes further than federal definitions and calls near-homeless as people temporarily staying with others but in “relatively more stable conditions.”
Tammy Moreland (Mille Lacs Ojibwe), chair of the Minnesota Tribal Collaborative to Prevent and End Homelessness, said data from the survey helps cooperating tribes develop homelessness and housing programs. The collaborative is a joint information and research for five of the six reservations participating in the Wilder study.
She said current data are taking on additional importance as tribal governments deal with health and safety issues under threat from COVID-19.
“We have identified people who are doubled-up. We use the data when we are having discussions about COVID. If someone gets sick, it could be infecting three different families in that household,” Moreland said.
“It can often be a mom, dad, a grandmother and a cousin all put at risk.”
Tribal councils team with Wilder to identify homelessness at the reservations for the survey. The collaborative and tribal councils use the gathered data to develop housing and homeless policies either together or at an individual reservation.
Participating Ojibwe Tribal Councils include Red Lake, White Earth, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs., Bois Forte and Fond du Lac Bands. Minnesota’s four Dakota reservations and the Grand Portage Band are not part of the study.
Researchers for the 2018 study interviewed 1,200 resident identified by housing staffs at the participating reservations.
Housing costs and the availability of housing are obvious problems for the reservations, Wilder’s MartinRogers (White Earth descendant) said.
The study shows there are waiting lists of more than a year to find housing on some reservations, she said. Specifically, survey respondents waiting for subsidized housing averaged 14 months on waiting lists. That compares with an average of nine months for others living in Greater Minnesota.
Rental costs are an enormous factor. Using federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines, households should not spend more than 30 percent of income on housing. The survey found respondents had median household incomes of $300 a month, and 27 percent had no income.
Using HUD guidance, the average survey respondent shouldn’t pay more than $90 a month on rent and utilities. At that time, the fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Greater Minnesota was $576 a month.
Nearly half of the respondents reported either physical health or mental health conditions that limit their ability to find jobs, perform work or secure employment to improve household incomes.
Further, the survey found that employment rates for homeless people on reservations had not kept pace with the overall employment gains enjoyed in Greater Minnesota since the start of the economic recovery from the Great Recession, and before the COVID-19 sent economies into a free fall in March.
Surveyed respondents had only 24 percent employment in 2018, and 81 percent of them were earning wages less than $15 an hour, a benchmark of what is considered “a living wage” across America.
Just like doubling-up, these conditions not only affected the individual respondent. Children, youth and elders made up half the homeless and near-homeless on the reservations, Wilder reports. One in four respondents were parents with children, and 52 percent of these children were 6-years old or younger.
MartinRogers said survey responses help shoot down stereotype images about doubling-up and causes for homelessness that a part of the legacy from the Wall of Forgotten Natives homeless encampment in Minneapolis a year ago.
“The assumption is that doubling-up is a cultural thing because you don’t let your relatives go homeless,” she said. “This doesn’t get counted by federal surveys.”
Wilder found doubling up isn’t a desired choice, she said. Some doubling-up occurs in homes without water, without heat, “and now you have two families sharing space in insufficient housing.”
The survey found 74 percent of doubled-up respondents were living in overcrowded space, 51 percent were living in “severely overcrowded” spaces with 1.5 resident per room, and 22 percent were living in what housing experts call substandard housing, or housing without a flush toilet, electricity, central heat, a kitchen sink, or hot and cold running water.
That partly explains why 99 percent of respondents said they wanted to live in their own housing, not doubled-up with family or friends.
Beginning with partners in 1991, Wilder conducts Minnesota homeless surveys every three years to assist government leaders, nonprofit groups and organizations gather information useful for developing homeless and housing programs and policies. The 2018 Reservation Homeless Study is a subgroup of those efforts.
Wilder Research in an independent unit of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul. It is a large nonprofit research and evaluation group working with nonprofits, foundations, and government entities to assist public decision making and improve lives.
MartinRogers has been with Wilder since 2001. It is especially satisfying to work with the Minnesota Tribal Collaborative and Native groups, she said. “My relatives. Friends.”
The Minnesota Tribal Collaborative to Prevent and End Homelessness consists of members from the Boise Forte, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Red Lake and White Earth Bands who usually meet monthly to share ideas, apply for funding, advocate for state and sometimes federal programs for the homeless. They have secured state grants under Long Term Support Services Dollars and Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program grants; they work with other Minnesota homeless groups, and they advocate for a bipartisan federal homeless program, the Tribal Access to Homeless Assistance Act, by Sens. Tiny Smith (D-Minn.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The current study can be access at: https://www.wilder.org/sites/default/files/imports/2018_HomelessInMinnesota_Reservations_Summ_4-20.pdf.