Sheriff Stanek urges support for Homeless Youth Act

After arriving late to high school several days in a row, a student was asked by a counselor why he was consistently missing his first period class. The young man explained family problems had resulted in him being kicked out of his home. The only place he could find to sleep was a couch at a friend’s house, which was several miles from school. The bus schedule couldn’t get him to school until well after first period had started.

The young man attends Edina High School. Every morning he would take several buses to get to the Southdale Mall and then walk more than 3 miles to get to school. He is like many homeless youth in Minnesota. They work hard to stay on track with their lives, but the challenges are significant.

Homeless young people generally are not “runaways” or “homeless by choice.” Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) have experienced an out-of-home placement. Thirty-four percent of the homeless youth surveyed by Wilder Research said they have experienced parental neglect; 42 percent are past victims of physical abuse; and 27 percent have been sexually abused.

The Homeless Youth Act, a bill now being considered by the Minnesota Legislature, will give hope and help to the 2,500 Minnesota youth who, on any given night, are without a safe and stable place to call home. The crisis is growing in communities all across the state. According to an analysis of Wilder Research figures, the number of homeless youth increased 33 percent between 2006 and 2012.

These young people are trying to keep their lives together against tremendous odds. Many are trying to stay in school, hold down jobs and grow into successful adults. All too often, however, the instability and lack of predictability of their lives drags them down. They find themselves couch-hopping (i.e., sleeping wherever they can for short stretches of time) because of the lack of transitional housing and supportive services. As a result, homeless young people are at significant risk of physical/sexual abuse, poor health and suicide.

As Hennepin County Sheriff, it is my job to make our communities safer. The Homeless Youth Act will help the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies throughout the state get our homeless youth out of harm’s way. This is an important and attainable goal. I’m not supportive of this legislation just because I wear a badge. A decade ago, as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, I advocated for programs with similar goals to help homeless youth in Minnesota.

I’ve seen first-hand the good that can be done by assuring young people have access to a safe place to sleep, the support to stay in school and the support to both obtain and hold a job. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Boys & Girls Club of the Twin Cities. Each year, the Boys & Girls Club of Minnesota recognizes one club member with the Youth of the Year Award. Over the years, I’ve heard many compelling stories about overcoming obstacles: living in a car, turning away from chemically dependent parents and doing everything they can to simply get to school at the start of the day.

All Minnesotans have a stake in helping homeless young people become successful adults. We know the alternatives. Wilder Research estimates a return of $4 for every $1 spent on supportive housing for homeless youth. Homelessness and housing stability are clearly linked to lower high school and college graduation rates. Economists at the University of Minnesota estimate that each child in Minnesota who fails to graduate from high school is estimated to cost his or her community about $750,000 in a combination of lost wages, lost tax revenues and additional costs for health care, social services and incarceration.

There is a lot of competition this year at the Minnesota Legislature for funds, but the budgeting process is all about priorities. We need to look at investments like this that simultaneously improve public safety and reduce future costs. The Homeless Youth Act complements the investments in Early Education, K-12 Education, and Higher Education proposed by both Democrats and Republicans. — Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek (Editor’s note: Stanek has been the Hennepin Count Sheriff since 2007. Previously, he served in the Minnesota House of Representatives and was commissioner of Public Safety under Gov. Tim Pawlenty.)