Homeless in the skyway

Two Rochester police officers wait while people gather their belongings and leave their skyway campsites one morning this winter. The officers gave the six people there a list of options to go to for help and shelter.

For most of this winter, it’s been impossible to miss the homeless people living, sleeping and wandering through Rochester’s skyway system — seemingly in numbers we haven’t seen in previous winters.

A factor of the unusually harsh winter weather? Or an indication that the state’s increasing housing crisis is starting to bite hard in Rochester?

A recently released survey of homelessness in Minnesota found 10,233 homeless people on a single day last fall — Oct. 25. That represented an increase of 1,000 people since the last survey in 2015.

The count, by Wilder Research, found people in shelters, transitional housing, camped outside and at drop-in sites. Given those circumstances, no doubt some homeless people were not counted.

In any event, it’s the highest number of homeless people in the state in decades. Interestingly, the rate of homelessness appeared to jump more in greater Minnesota than in the Twin Cities metro area.

It would easy to dismiss people living on the streets, in their cars, or in the skyways as lazy. The economy, after all, is booming. The unemployment rate was at 2.8 percent when the count was done.

But, cautioned Senta Neff, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Homlessness, “Homelessness is not a character problem, it’s a math problem.”

Even many people who do hold jobs are just one layoff, one medical bill, one plant closing away from losing their domicile. With the cost of housing eating up such a large portion of paychecks, it’s easy to see how one financial crisis can lead to homelessness.

Economy and housing experts say even for those working, especially at entry-level or lower-level jobs, wages have not kept up with the cost of housing. Wage stagnation, it is argued, is as much to blame as the shortage of affordable housing.

In other words, there are many moving parts to solving the puzzle of homelessness in what is portrayed as a vibrant economy.

We applaud Rochester Mayor Kim Norton for this week convening a second meeting about homelessness. It’s an indication that she does not intend to let this problem fade from view.

We hope the public attention will inspire some creative solutions on the part of private developers and government officials. Surely, some energetic entrepreneur can, with government cooperation, come up with a way to build quality affordable housing and still make a profit.

As Norton correctly noted, this is not an issue that will go away with the winter weather. It will simply move elsewhere and wait to be solved some other day.

In other words, the appropriate time to start finding solutions is now.

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