Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Ramsey County looks to reduce homelessness by focusing on most frequent shelter users

Officials say programs like RUSH are proving to be effective in moving homeless residents into permanent housing — ultimately saving the county money in emergency services.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman: “The most cost-effective solution is to get them into permanent housing.”
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

A new Ramsey County housing program hopes to reduce the area’s homelessness rates — while also saving the county money.

Earlier this month, Ramsey County and the city of St. Paul launched the Redirecting Users of Shelter to Housing, or RUSH, a new collaborative effort between the city, county and several foundations and service providers, including Catholic Charities, the St. Paul Foundation and the F.R. Bigelow Foundation. The effort targets the 100 most frequent users of the county’s emergency overnight shelters and aims to put them into permanent housing.

In 2015, the Wilder Foundation counted more than 1,700 homeless individuals in Ramsey County shelters on a single night — up 15 percent since a similar count three years before. And shelter providers say they expect the county’s homeless population to rise even further over the next decade, partially because many individuals who face chronic homelessness continue to have serious barriers to obtaining housing.

Article continues after advertisement

City and county officials say programs like RUSH are proving to be effective in moving that population into permanent housing — a move that ultimately saves the county money while also freeing up valuable emergency resources. “We continue to struggle, as cities across America are with homelessness, and we’re getting down into the fine detail now in terms of who’s on the streets, why they’re on the streets and how do we get them off of the streets,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “The most cost-effective solution is to get them into permanent housing.”

A decline in ER visits, arrests and shelter use 

The RUSH initiative isn’t a new model, said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough. The program is modeled after a similar two-year effort by Hennepin County back in 2012, he said.

That program, called Top 51, which also targeted the county’s highest users of emergency shelters, was successful at getting 79 previously chronically homeless individuals into permanent housing. The result was a 76 percent decline in emergency room visits and a 41 percent decline in ambulance runs for those individuals during the year they were in housing. Arrests for those individuals also dropped 43 percent since the beginning of the pilot, and shelter use dropped to zero.

“What you see is a reduction in the use of services,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “It’s a reduction in cost … because there’s less use of the jail, less use of detox, less use of the emergency room at the hospital.”

Commissioner Jim McDonough

Commissioner Jim McDonough

McDonough said he hopes RUSH will achieve similar results, and in turn, save Ramsey County money by freeing up two of the most expensive beds for the county to keep — namely, emergency room beds and jail beds. Often, homeless individuals are booked into the county jail for petty crimes like loitering, public urination and intoxication, he said, but that’s not where the county wants them. “That’s not helping them and it becomes this revolving door,” McDonough said.

Chris Boese, vice president of patient care services for Regions Hospital, said that because the area’s homeless population typically doesn’t have access to regular, preventative care, they tend to use the hospital’s emergency services as their primary health care line, and only when they get really sick. “It’s chronic diseases; it’s diabetes; it’s cardiac diseases, respitory illnesses,” she said. “A lot of our homeless folks probably have mental health issues, too. It really runs the gamut.”

Tracy Berglund, director of housing and emergency services for Catholic Charities, said getting this group into housing will also free up much needed space at their St. Paul shelters as well. One bed can cost up to $6,500 a year to maintain, she said, and they’re in growing demand each year. “We’re already full,” Berglund said, “and those folks are using up a lot of shelter nights.”

Improving quality of life

Yet Berglund says RUSH isn’t just about saving money, but also about improving the quality of life for a population that can be difficult engage. “The thing you want to remember is that they don’t want to move into housing. They’re fearful of it,” she said. “Some people took up to a year of engagement before we could get them in.”

Many of the top users of shelter space have mental illnesses, chemical dependencies or face other barriers that prevent them from finding and keeping housing, Berglund said. So, the biggest part of the process, she said, is simply building a healthy, trusting relationship.

Once individuals agree to sign on into housing, Berglund said, they’re provided with an apartment that has direct access to wrap around services such as state and county financial aid services, job training, health care services, and mental health and chemical dependency treatment.

RUSH currently has been successful in housing 35 individuals who frequently use shelters so far, Berglund said. Over the next two years, they’re hoping to house the remaining 65. “Getting the most difficult people into housing, it’s super rewarding to see,” she said.

A need for more housing

But Berglund said even with the project off to a good start, there’s still a need for more affordable housing in the county. Currently, the RUSH program utilizes Higher Ground Saint Paul’s 280 shelter units and 193 affordable housing units, which are located on the three floors above the shelter space.

But Berglund said they need to build more shelter and housing space to complete their project, and to meet the demands of the county. They’re hoping the Minnesota Legislature will pass a bonding bill this year that would provide $12 million in state funding to go towards building a new shelter with 171 affordable housing units located above it, she said. “We need more housing,” she said.

The RUSH program utilizes the old Dorothy Day Center

MinnPost file photo by Jana Freiband
The old Dorothy Day Center.

The new building, which will be called the St. Paul Opportunity Center and Dorothy Day Residence, will be built over the old Dorothy Day Center in the heart of downtown St. Paul, and will cost roughly $60 million dollars to complete. So far, Catholic Charities has raised more than $35 million for the project, and they’re hoping the legislature comes through to pass enough in housing bonds to help them complete it.

“As a community, we just have to get smarter or this [homelessness problem] is just going to continue to worsen,” Berglund said. “The solution is affordable housing and we’re not building enough.”