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

Though the number of families seeking emergency shelter in Hennepin County has decreased, other groups — such as single women — face a shortage of beds. 

homeless camp
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.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”