Increased funds support Minnesota youth experiencing homelessness


Hannah Saunders


While data trends show that cold-related deaths increased from 2002 to 2019, the state has increased funding for several initiatives to assist Minnesota youth who are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing homelessness. 

Individuals lose body heat faster than it can be produced when exposed to cold temperatures, which can lead to cold-related illnesses or death. Cold-related illnesses include hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblains—these can occur at cool temperatures above 40 degrees if an individual becomes cold from the wind, rain, or sweat. Those who spend long periods of time outdoors, including those experiencing homelessness, have increased risks of cold-related illness. 

Katherine Meerse, PhD, executive director of Avenues for Youth in Minneapolis, explained ways the organization is assisting young adults who are experiencing homelessness in the city. 

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“In general, at all times of the year there is a lack of capacity to provide shelter and housing to young folks,” Meerse said. “About 4,500 young people, or 13,000 16-to-24 year olds experience homelessness.” 

Avenues for Youth supports individuals ages 16 to 24 who are experiencing homelessness, and provides shelter, short-term housing options, and wraparound services. Meerse said it operates two congregate shelters: Minneapolis Avenues and Brooklyn Avenues. Both facilities provide a 30-day shelter program and an 18-month transitional housing program. The northern Minneapolis location provides shelter for 20 youths at any given time, while the Brooklyn Park location shelters 11 individuals at a time. Each location has emergency overnight beds, where youth can stay for up to three days until a placement is identified. 

Out of about 13,000 youth who experience homelessness in the city, it’s estimated that 35 percent of them are parents. This motivated Avenues for Youth to launch its Young Families Program in 2017, which provides affordable housing for parents ages 18 to 24 and their children. For up to two years, parents receive rent subsidies based on their needs, and most families remain in the program for three months to one year. Those in the program also receive one-on-one support from a family advocate and engagement specialist to assist youth and their families with achieving their housing, educational, and employment goals. 

“We’re delighted to obtain funding to double the Young Families Program. We usually have 12, but now we have 24 young families at a time—that’s super exciting.”

— Meerse

Meerse said Avenues for Youth is adequately staffed to support the increase in families it now serves, and is working on hiring another employee. 

Minnesota’s last legislative session directed the Office of Economic Opportunity to administer funding to entities that provide services to individuals who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability. The Homeless Youth Act Grant will allocate $12.5 million from the general fund in 2024, and another $12.5 million in 2025. It will allocate $20 million in both 2026 and 2027. The funding will be available until June 30th, 2027.

Grants will trickle down to providers who are serving homeless youth and youth at risk of experiencing homelessness. The goal of the grant program is to create and expand services that allow caring adults—those youths consider to be their chosen family—to take youths into their residence to avoid becoming homeless. The one-time appropriation is available until June 30th, 2025. Avenues for Youth has a ConneQT program that allows homeless or at-risk youth to stay within their communities. 

“It’s specifically for LGBTQ+ youth, and they can live with a host family or person who’s LGBTQ+ or an ally,” Meerse said. “The hosts volunteer for a few nights, up to a year. Most housing arrangements start as short-term.” 

Youth Link, on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, is a large daytime drop-in center that provides warming spaces. During the winter, Youth Link gets a waiver from the city to operate 24/7, Meerse said, as most warming centers are only open during the day. Oftentimes, individuals are not allowed to stay at overnight shelters during the day. 

“In a dream world, adult shelters would be open 24/7, but it’s more expensive to operate due to staffing,” Meerse said.

Meerse said the 2023 legislative session was successful considering the amount of funding for the Homeless Youth Act Grant almost tripled, although more funding is needed. She noted that the state needs more affordable housing options, with funding coming from the federal, state, and local governments. A lack of affordable housing has led to youth and whole families experiencing homelessness, and splitting up because of it, Meerse said, creating major behavioral health challenges.

“It’s a result of homelessness, but the reasons behind it are [there are] not enough providers or culturally specific providers, (or) affordable providers. We need to put resources in and address root causes—racism, homophobia, (and) transphobia,” Meerse said. “Until you grapple with that on a policy level, the issue will continue.”

In the past, Avenues for Youth would have conducted a warm hand-off to Youth Link if Avenues had no available spaces. Earlier this year, Hennepin County launched its Hennepin Shelter Hotline for individuals who are seeking emergency shelter. A specialist collaborates with individuals to assist them with finding immediate permanent housing, short-term and non-shelter accommodations, and a referral to the emergency shelter system. Avenues for Youth is currently referring individuals to the Hennepin Shelter Hotline.

The Department of Human Services is also funding centers to specifically assist unhoused individuals and those at risk of experiencing homelessness during winter months through Catholic Charities of Winona-Rochester Warming Centers, Chum’s Warming Center in Duluth, and Ramsey County Warming Centers. 

“Our young people are super resilient and I’m inspired by them everyday,” Meerse said. “We need to do better for them [as] they’re figuring out what they have to do in winter, like couch surfing—they figure it out and we don’t want them to have to do that anymore.”

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