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Hennepin County budget boost efforts to address homelessness among women

In December, the board approved a 2020 budget that includes an unprecedented hike in spending on the county’s adult shelter system an increase that will pay for a new facility exclusively for people who identify as female.

homeless camp
In Hennepin County’s latest one-night count of homeless people, about one-third of all people sleeping outside, on trains or in vehicles identified as female.
MinnPost file photo by Jessica Lee

In Hennepin County, the gap in emergency housing services has affected one sector of the population particularly hard: women without families.

None of the county’s adult homeless shelters are for single women only, and shelter staff turn away an average of 20 to 25 women daily due to a lack of space. David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, calls the lack of shelter space for women “a big stress in the system.”

In an attempt to address that stress, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners approved a 2020 budget in December that includes an unprecedented hike in spending on the county’s adult shelter system an increase that will pay for a new facility exclusively for people who identify as female.

The funding boost, totaling $1.1 million and raising the overall 2020 spending on homeless shelters to $12.6 million, partially fulfills a budget request by the county’s Office to End homelessness to not only add a women’s shelter but also to fix two major flaws in the current system: recurring shelter visitors who are not finding permanent homes and the inability of some people living on the streets to use emergency beds due to existing rules.

“There are people who don’t come into our shelter system, not because of the lack of capacity, but because of barriers around policies,” Hewitt said. At the same time, “the goal of shelter has to be to make homelessness brief; if we’re not helping people move out of shelter quickly, then the capacity issues just endlessly grow, you know, if they’re coming in.”

A high priority

In Hennepin County’s latest one-night count of homeless people, those who identify as female made up roughly one-third of all people sleeping outside, on trains or in vehicles.

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Compared to their male counterparts, women living on the streets face a significantly higher risk of physical attacks or sexual abuse, studies show — research that drove the county’s decision to fund a new women’s shelter sooner than later, Hewitt said. “Both the historical experience of trauma is great, and the risk of further trauma is great, and so that vulnerability and seeing that demand … really pushed us to make that a very high priority,” he said.

The county will own the shelter but is planning to partner with a nonprofit or agency that would oversee the day-to-day operations of the new facility, similar to the way the county’s existing emergency shelters operate. “We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, but we’re very excited to bring online a new shelter program that is service-rich, small in scale and responds to that specific gap for people who identify as female in our system,” Hewitt said.

The county is seeking a proposal for a shelter that includes 30 emergency beds at a minimum and access to good transit. But the county also kept some parameters loose; it did not impose requirements for what type of services the partner provide or where they are located, for example. 

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“We’re looking to see what comes in in terms of other resources they may bring to the table and service-specific components, whether those be culturally specific or another kind of service rich environment,” he said. “We want to see what our provider community is able to offer and then move forward with a proposal that will benefit the most people.”

The panel is looking to choose a provider for the shelter in the coming weeks and then open its doors as soon as possible after that, Hewitt said. To address the need for women-only beds in the meantime, the county earlier this month added 25 beds to an existing shelter on a temporary basis.

Adding social workers

Commissioners agreed on the 2020 spending hike via an amendment to the county’s Health and Human Services spending plan during last-minute budget talks last year. Hewitt said the decision came out conversations with existing shelter providers, housing-rights activists and people who have experienced homelessness many of whom said the system should have less barriers for entry and could do a better job assessing the needs of shelter visitors to find them homes.

That group had one request as its top priority: growing the number of social workers in shelters who can manage visitors’ individual cases, keeping track of their documents and housing referrals, as well as overseeing the process of applying for government subsidies.

In response, the county is adding eight permanent case-management workers to help visitors of the system’s two largest shelters, Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground and the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center in Minneapolis, where about 650 people sleep nightly.

“[That’s] an area that’s ripe for putting more energy into getting people out of homelessness and into housing, and that way creating a lot of additional capacity in the shelter system,” he said.

The budget amendment will also pay for new case workers at a shelter inside Elliot Park’s First Covenant Church, as well as cover the cost of a fundamental change to that facility’s structure; Currently, the Minneapolis-based St. Stephen’s Human Services operates 50 beds at the church separated by gender, but the additional money will allow staff to convert those beds into 25 blocks for couples.

That’s an example, Hewitt said, of the county trying to change existing rules that prevent people from seeking emergency shelter in the first place and living on the streets. “It can accommodate partners so that people who have been resistant to come into shelter historically because they didn’t want to be separated from a loved one or able to be sheltered together,” he said.

In addition to the new case workers, the 2020 budget increase provides money for staff across the system can learn how to de-escalate tense or potentially-violent situations among visitors and provide counseling that considers past trauma.

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Despite the new investments, the 2020 budget amendment did not go as far as Hewitt and other homeless-rights advocates would have liked. In October, the Office to End Homelessness went before the board of commissioners to ask for a $2.1 million spending increase a total that would have also added a new culturally-specific homeless shelter for Native American residents. 

“We are still looking at where other funds potentially could be leveraged to bring those pieces in, whether those be private or philanthropic,” he said. “We believe that all of the recommendations are really necessary.”

Number of homeless families continues to fall

While the number of single adults in Hennepin County who are homeless has increased in recent years, the number of families seeking emergency shelter in Hennepin County has decreased significantly in the past five years, according to county data. In 2014, 1,500 families stayed in shelter; last year, that figure dropped to roughly 860. 

Hewitt and Julia Welle Ayres, who manages the county’s finance for housing development, said that trend is a positive result of county investments that aimed to help homeless families years ago, specifically around supportive housing. In those developments, residents often move in after living on the streets or sleeping in emergency shelters; rely on government subsidies to pay rent, and have access to social services, such as mental health or substance abuse treatment.

The 2020 budget for the county’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA), which manages the county’s portfolio of public housing, includes about $14 million to create or preserve additional affordable housing, which is double the amount from the previous year. 

Tapping into that money, the county board on Tuesday approved three new developments that will create 65 new homes for people who are homeless, and one of them will be designed specifically to help Native American residents.

“The flow coming out of the shelter, not only to create capacity in our shelter system but in our emergency department and in our mental health treatment centers, in our detox,” she said. “The county has slowly been building up this strategy that you’re now really seeing coming into fruition.”