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Hennepin County looks at expanding shelter options to address growing homeless populations

homeless camp
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
On a typical morning, dozens of people try to reserve space in Hennepin County’s network of shelters to find a place to sleep, only to end end up camping outside or in vehicles.

As Hennepin County’s homeless population grows, officials are considering a multimillion dollar plan to expand the county’s emergency services by adding beds to overnight facilities, case-management workers to help people find permanent shelter and shelters to serve minority groups.

The county’s Office to End Homelessness wants to spend more than $2.1 million to grow shelter capacity and transition homeless people into permanent housing faster, director David Hewitt told the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners Thursday. The board will decide in coming weeks whether it will include the proposal in the county’s 2020 budget.

The issue is one of supply and demand. On a typical morning, dozens of people try to reserve space in Hennepin County’s network of shelters to find a place to sleep, only to end end up camping outside or in vehicles.

“When capacity is hit, people are informed that there is no shelter for them and will then have to seek alternatives, which of course will often be unsafe and undesirable,” Hewitt said.

Single women turned away

The gap in emergency services has affected one sector of the population particularly hard: single adults. In the county’s latest one-night count of homeless people, the majority of people sleeping outside, on trains or in vehicles were individuals over the age of 25. The emergency system currently operates 828 beds for them, and almost all of those beds are occupied every night. 

“We’re very close to a hundred percent utilization on a daily basis,” Hewitt said. “Single adult homelessness has been growing and it’s been driving the growth of sheltered homelessness.”


Single women have a particularly hard time securing shelter. Currently, the county does not offer a shelter for women only, and there are less beds for women overall than there are for men. On an average day, staff turn away 25 women who want a place to stay.

Meanwhile, the number of families seeking emergency shelter in Hennepin County has decreased significantly in the past five years, according to county data. In 2014, 4,500 families stayed in shelter; last year, that figure dropped to roughly 860. 

That’s the eventual goal for all homeless single adults, too. With the proposal to overhaul the emergency system, Hewitt said the county is focused on finding housing for recurring shelter visitors so that they free up beds for newcomers and avoid bottlenecks in the system.

Navigation center seen as a model

The county’s plan proposes opening three new emergency shelters: one with 70 beds and culturally-specific services for Native Americans; one with 30 beds for women only; and a medical respite shelter with 30 beds for people who suffer from serious or chronic illnesses. The county would own the shelters and partner with nonprofits that would oversee the day-to-day operations, similar to the way Hennepin County’s existing emergency shelters operate. 

The proposal uses Minneapolis’ temporary Navigation Center, where officials moved residents of the Hiawatha homeless encampment earlier this year, as a model of combining shelter and social services.


The proposal also calls for 318 new lockers at Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center and Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground in Minneapolis, as well as new staff for security, at a cost of $115,000 up front and $86,400 annually after that. According to county surveys, many homeless people have too many belongings to keep at existing space at shelters, or they want easy access to their valuables and documents without having to deal with shelter staff.

Also at Higher Ground, which operates a shelter with 171 beds in North Loop, county leaders are mulling a request to extend service hours so that homeless people can access the space earlier in the day, which is closer to how the family shelter system works, and would help people during winter’s extreme temperatures. 

Meanwhile, at Elliot Park’s First Covenant Church, the plan calls for converting 25 of the shelter’s 50 single-adult beds into “partner spaces with a broad definition of partners.” Right now, most shelters have strict rules on who can share spaces guidelines that often deter homeless couples from seeking emergency shelter and keep them living on the streets.

The proposal also requests that shelter staff undergo comprehensive training and the addition of more than two dozen full-time positions: jobs that include someone to field hotline calls and take reservations for beds, as well as 13 case managers to oversee clients’ transition from homelessness to permanent shelter. 

Those case workers would play a key role in the county’s goal of getting people into stable housing faster, since the new staff could keep track of people’s documents and housing referrals, as well as oversee the process of applying for government aid.


That bottleneck is not isolated to Hennepin County. According to Wilder Research — which conducts routine counts of homelessness Minnesota — the number of unsheltered people has more than doubled since 2015, in part because shelters statewide are often at capacity. And the number of people who used emergency shelters in both Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro has grown by about one-third over the last decade, Wilder data show.

The Office to End Homelessness’s proposal is far from a done deal. No part of the proposal is currently part of the county’s 2020 Health and Human Services budget at this point, though commissioners are considering including aspects of the plan in their spending next year. Other ideas could carry over to next year’s budget planning.

“We’ve kind of pitched it as, ‘This is what it would cost for the next two years, and then we would track as we go,’” Hewitt said. “That will be a discussion over the coming weeks.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ed Felien on 10/11/2019 - 12:41 pm.

    How much is Hennepin County spending on each homeless person for shelter? Why can’t the County find out how many homeowners want to take in a roomer or boarder? There would have to be screening at both ends and there would need to be a sustainable bureaucracy, sort of like the Adoption Agency and half-way houses. Throwing single homeless women to the curb is intolerable.

  2. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 10/11/2019 - 03:13 pm.

    I wish there was a way to provide shelter for people who are homeless for viable reasons. Drug addiction is not one of them. Treatment should be provided, but if an individual refuses, then they are SOL. Are there any statistics as to how many homeless are drug addicts refusing help?

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 10/11/2019 - 09:03 pm.

      I don’t know what the stats are; however it does appear that not only addiction, but mental health are issues. The reality is that in MN it is a very high standard to commit someone to treatment or a facility. It is a fair question to ask how much do we spend and what are the results. Some argue that the more that is offered, more people from other areas come into Hennepin county. Either way evidence should be a part of any plan that includes specifics.

    • Submitted by Dave Hintzman on 10/12/2019 - 05:24 am.

      Difficult problem. Refusing treatment unfortunately is a symptom of addiction. SOL doesn’t work. Continued compassion and acceptance is a much greater way to get them into at least admitting they need some level of care. On simple step at a time.

      • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 10/13/2019 - 09:06 am.

        The inside facility the city built last allowed users to shoot up. I don’t think that was the right thing to do. It’s called enabling. If a private organization wants to provide shelter and necessities for addicts I think that’s okay. But I do not think it’s okay to do this with taxpayer dollars.
        If addicts are willing to go through treatment, I am all for helping them in any way we can. But until they give up the needle, I am not. They have to want to do it.

        • Submitted by Elsa Mack on 10/15/2019 - 07:54 am.

          I understand your perspective, and it is frustrating to see resources go to people who use drugs. But it seems clear that if these people are not allowed to use drugs in shelters, they will keep living in tents and gathering in encampments. Personally I’d rather not have people freezing to death on the street or in tent cities.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/12/2019 - 12:04 am.

    Betsy’s comment kind of answers Ed’s. A large portion of the chronic homeless population is made up of heroin and meth addicts. Taking them in as boarders is not really a viable solution.

    I’m not sure if people don’t want treatment or can’t access it, but that’s the root of the problem here.

  4. Submitted by sarah mcpherson on 10/12/2019 - 02:06 am.

    Maybe if rent was more affordable there would be less homelessness. Being a single mother working full time, I paid 750. for a nice 2 bedroom apartment. The landlord sold the building. By the end of the first month with new owners, I received notice my rent was increasing to 1050. And a rental increase timeline was included. 6 mos the rent went to 1300. Hello are you frickin kidding me? But by the grace of God, I was able to move into another affordable apartment.
    AFFORDABLE HOUSING!!!! real AFFORDABLE HOUSING

  5. Submitted by Kathleen Nelson on 10/12/2019 - 03:33 am.

    I already have been providing short term stays for people I know or a friend knows. First lady who stayed in my one room was a disabled lady who was homeless and social worker was involved and was looking for a safe place for her. She stayed a month and worker found her a shelter and then a home. Duluth has a program connected with St Louis County, police and churches who have fund of of donations provided for temporary apartments and homes
    for homeless du err ing the winter. They can take over rent and stay as they get jobs. Many leave in warm weather back to the streets but others in transition get back on feet.
    Also there is the mini home idea. Build affordable homes for prople who work but low income and responsible!!

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