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'This will save lives': Minnesota nearly triples funding to combat youth homelessness

The state will invest $41.5 million in the Homeless Youth Act over the next two years. Advocates say the money will go much farther than many realize.

MINNEAPOLIS — When the Minnesota Legislature approved the massive $6.2 billion Health and Human Services budget on the final day of the 2023 session, tucked within all the spending was a $41.5 million investment that will help bolster the fight against youth homelessness for the next two years.

"It was a dream," said Beth Holger, CEO of The Link, a nonprofit that helped Minneapolis youth overcome homeless, sexual exploitation and criminal recruitment. "It sounds dramatic, but it will literally help save many lives to get youth in off the street, and to safe shelter and housing. It will also prevent them from being sexually exploited or trafficked. It will help improve their school attendance and education and, most importantly, it will help their well-being."

Though organizations like The Link and other organizations that make up the Minnesota Youth Services Network have seen those changes firsthand for decades, it has taken 22 years of volunteer coordination to build increasing state support for the work they do.

"For many years there was zero investment [from the state], we could barely get any meetings," Holger said. "It was so hard to even bring about awareness that there were youth that were out there experiencing homelessness."

In the meantime, they relied on fundraising and city, county and federal grants to help build a network of resources and support services. At The Link's headquarters in north Minneapolis, there is a juvenile justice program, and school and career support.

"We have two sites that are similar to this," Hoger said. "We also have three emergency shelters and then we have nine housing programs that have a total of 261 units of housing."

The Link currently receives about $362,000 from the state of Minnesota every year, which makes up just 2.5 percent of its $14.2 million budget. But Holger says that state money also helps unlock matching funds from other local and federal government grants.

Imagine what will happen now that the state's investment is poised to grow by more than $30 million with the stroke of the governor's pen.

Holger: "It's nearly tripling the investment that our state has ever spent on youth homelessness."

Kent Erdahl: "What will that potentially mean?" 

Holger: "That we are going to be able to significantly reduce youth and young family homelessness. We're going to be able to house and shelter and provide shelter for way more youth than we do right now."

That boost in support comes at a pivotal time. The most recent homeless study in Minnesota found there are 4,872 homeless youth in the state on any given night, but Holger says all of the shelters in the state only offer about 100 emergency beds. 

During the legislative session, Holger testified to the impact a sizeable investment can have in a short amount of time.

"The last time we saw a significant increase in the Homeless Youth Act — of $3 million — we saw a decrease of 1,100 youth per night in the same period of time," she said. "So that number of 4,872 [homeless youth], used to be 6,000."

In addition to the added funding for the Homeless Youth Act, Holger says new legislation this year has also cleared the way for $6 million in additional funds for Safe Harbor, $30-55 million for the Emergency Services Program (ESP), $6 million for the Transitional Housing Program (THP) and $100 million in Emergency Shelter capital.

She says The Link will receive $5 million of the emergency shelter capital to help kickstart fundraising for a new $30 million shelter and resource center.

But Holger says none of it would have been possible without the passion and testimony of many of the young people who have benefitted from the shelters and support programs that are operating in Minnesota.

"I slept in my car in -7-degree weather," said K'Vonte Irby, who overcame homelessness and now helps other young people at The Link. "I tried multiple shelters, I didn't find stability until I joined the Link."

"With the help of Oasis for Youth, I was able to find family, friends and really understand that there is help out there," said Oasis Sherman, who credits the Bloomington organization for helping her and her two children find a stable home to live in.

"I want to really give the youth credit for getting this passed," Holger said. "They were brave enough to come down, share their stories with the legislators through testimony, which is super hard to do. They helped really lead this movement and will continue to, so I cannot give enough credit to. It's amazing to see what they can do if they're offered some support."

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