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Organization using local event to draw attention to state’s homelessness woes

WILLMAR — The number of homeless Minnesotans has increased 6 percent during the last three years, with an estimated 14,000 homeless on most nights. Children and youth under the age of 21 make up nearly half of the homeless in the state, according to research from the Wilder Foundation.

Those numbers are harsh considering that homelessness can be prevented if enough affordable housing and services are available, said Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, which is holding its annual two-day conference in Willmar this week.

“It (homelessness) exists in our rural communities in every county across the state, and it doesn’t need to exist,” Kuoppala said. “We can develop the housing and services we need to house everybody.”

More than 350 frontline workers, program directors and policymakers from around the state are participating in the conference, which concludes today.

This is the first time the conference has been held in Willmar.

Kuoppala said communities in rural Minnesota are doing “a lot of things right” to address homelessness, including a willingness to collaborate “with people outside of the traditional homeless sector.”

She said social workers, teachers and the faith community represent some of the “cross-sector partnerships that are putting their heads together in a coordinated fashion” to find solutions to homelessness.

“There’s lots of great energy around it,” Kuoppala said, adding that agencies from the metro area can learn from the successes of rural agencies during this year’s conference, which features about 80 different speakers presenting information at 40 different workshops and keynote events.

At noon today, Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, is the featured speaker at the conference at the Willmar Convention Center.

Workshop topics included new rules for the federal SNAP food support program, the Affordable Care Act, housing concerns for adults with serious mental illness and advice for agencies that address housing concerns for teens. There were nitty-gritty workshops on how to obtain funds to repair blighted properties that could be used for affordable housing and how to build a youth host home in rural Minnesota as well as how to ensure the well-being of children who have experienced homelessness.

She said participants are also learning how to use social medial tools, like Twitter, to publicize immediate needs of agencies and shelters and to recruit donations.

There are also about 25 homeless individuals at the conference.

Kuoppala said scholarships are provided so those individuals can attend the workshops.

“We want the voices of people who are homeless also to be there so we’re not developing systems and strategies that aren’t going to work for real people,” she said, adding that she also hopes people who are homeless receive “some inspiration or affirmation that there are really a lot of people working hard to make life better for them.”

While some communities have homeless shelters, others are using other options like vouchers or church centers.

But she said the first priority of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless is the prevention of homelessness through providing affordable, stable housing.

“We don’t think that shelters are the solution,” she said. “We really think that if we can prevent homelessness before it happens, that’s the best thing.”

Kuoppala said Minnesotans are generous when they know a need exists but she said people get caught up in their own daily struggles of working and paying bills “and forget that some people have it worse.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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