Rochester will 'soon be facing an exploding homelessness crisis'
As a member of the leadership of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Rochester, I have had quite a number of opportunities over the past year to discuss the impact of the affordable housing crisis on the low income families of our community that we serve. Here is what I tell the concerned citizens of our community when we meet to discuss the subject:
The members of our six conferences from the Catholic parishes in Rochester, who are simply volunteers that take the donations from our congregations and give direct assistance to the poor, have seen a very significant shift in the requests from our friends in need. Three or four years ago our most common request had to do with keeping the lights and heat on, so we helped a lot of people with their RPU bills.
In contrast, this year, by far the largest amount of our cash assistance has gone to help people pay their rent. We try very hard to get people into housing they can afford, and also to keep people from getting evicted from the housing they are already in. Our call volume keeps increasing every month, our current rate of rent assistance is unsustainable, and we face running out of money very soon. We hear that other charities and social service agencies have too exhausted their rental assistance funding. But the rents keep rising and the affordable units are more and more scarce.
As all the agency and charity money runs out, we will also soon be facing an exploding homelessness crisis. There already is a shortage of available shelter beds, and the wait times to get in or return to the homeless shelters continues to increase. I am an early morning bicycle commuter, and this summer I noticed an increase in the number of people sleeping outside in the parks adjacent to the bicycle trails. Just last Friday I saw two people sleeping in places I had never noticed before. The weather lately has been nice, but winter will soon be here. The timing is especially bad for our rent assistance money to run out.
I think the time for talk about affordable housing in Rochester has already passed and the time for real bold and effective action is overdue. I am not a housing policy expert, I am just a church volunteer and an education IT professional by trade. But I do know that it will take a concerted effort of all the stakeholders of our community to make the hard decisions and provide the creative policy and zoning changes, the necessary incentives and subsidies, the real estate marketing changes, the housing construction innovations, etc. to get as many new (and used) affordable housing units online as soon as possible.
I therefore kindly ask all the members of our community, especially the major employers, the developers and builders, the financiers, the realtors, the city council, the county commission, the agencies and charities, and all of you to start working diligently and cooperatively to come up with effective solutions and carry them out right away. On behalf of the low income people we serve, I will pray that your actions be fruitful.
Marty Cormack is president of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, District Council of Rochester, Minnesota.