There was something wrong.

Several of us were eating dinner in St. Paul when we noticed a family of four: two small children, a mom and dad. They were very upset. Over the next five hours, we tried and ultimately were able to help this family, who had no place to call home.

But conversations with 17 Minnesota suburban, rural and urban school districts during the first week of December — as diverse as Milaca, Minnetonka and Monticello — show there are thousands of homeless children and families throughout the state.

How will we respond? First, let’s return to Nov. 21.

Nadia McClintock, formerly homeless herself and an advocate for the homeless, and I began talking with the mother and father. We also played with their energetic children, ages 3 and 6. We learned the family had been homeless since June. During the day, the father works at a fast food restaurant. (Wilder Foundation research shows that nearly one-third of Minnesota homeless adults are employed). At night, they rode light rail until it closed. The previous night they slept on the floor of an unheated garage.

I called 211, a 24-hour phone line established by United Way to help metro area homeless people. I was told one shelter was available, but we must talk with St. Paul Police to get the family into it. We weren’t eager to contact police. So we spent another hour making phone calls. Nothing worked.

Finally, with the family’s permission, we called St. Paul Police. Two officers tried for an hour to find a place. Nothing. The police told the mom that if her husband was abusing her, there was shelter available. But she insisted he was a caring husband who was not harming her. So, no shelter.

Two more police and two Ramsey County Sheriff’s staff arrived. More calls. Same results. It’s now 10:30 p.m. I decided to pay for a room at a local motel. We took the sleeping children, mom and dad to the motel for the night. The next day, Amber Gray of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office took the family to a county office to seek help. They weren’t able to work out anything. So Gray called Arlington Hills Lutheran Church which donated funds to house the family for Friday and Saturday night.

Gray’s team pools together enough money to buy one more night. For three nights at least, they are safe.

Monday, another trip to a Ramsey County office produced better results. The county is paying for a hotel room, because emergency family shelters are full. The most recent county report from October shows 247 people, including 160 children, are on the county’s waiting list for shelter.

Wilder Foundation found that about a third of Minnesota’s homeless are in Greater Minnesota, a third are in the suburbs, and a third are in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Little Falls Community Schools Superintendent Stephen Jones wrote: “The number of students we reported on the Homeless Children and Youth Data Survey for the 2018-19 school year was 24. The number has been increasing since 2013-14, when we reported 14 students who were homeless or in housing transition.”

This is not a column about “what to do.” But it is a plea. Can’t we do much better for our children?

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change.

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