BY ERIC MUELLER – MURPHY NEWS SERVICE, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND MASS COMMUNICATION
The homelessness rate in Hennepin County is at a five-year high — a trend putting pressure on area shelters.
The region’s low vacancy rates for affordable housing and a drop in federal funding for programs to prevent homelessness are factors in the increase in people seeking shelter.
Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) is planning to discuss the homelessness problem facing the city and the region on Nov. 27 at the beginning of the council’s Community Development Committee meeting.
City and county officials are now using two new overflow shelters for the homeless — one at First Covenant Church, 810 S. 7th St., and another in North Minneapolis at the River of Life Church at 2200 N. Fremont Ave.
“We are absolutely full now at the Drake, People Serving People (PSP) and [Sharing & Caring Hands],” Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said.
She added that Hennepin County desperately needs new shelters for unaccompanied youth and that there has been no help from hotels to house families.
Matthew Ayres, project manager for the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, said community leaders continue to promote programs that have been useful in matching the homeless with housing and other services. One such program is Project Homeless Connect — a one-stop shop of services where 1,000 volunteers help serve up to 2,000 people in one day. The next scheduled event is on Dec. 10 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Another program is known as Top 51 — an effort to identify homeless people who are frequent and long-term users of shelters.
“We looked at the top 51 users of shelters and targeted those folks,” Ayres said. “Nine have been housed already and 17 are engaged in getting benefits and working on housing outcomes. It’s a two-year pilot. We’re three months into it. What that does is open up shelter spots for other folks.”
Community leaders are also trying to reach the homeless who haven’t accessed shelters.
“Most people who are homeless are not in shelters,” said Monica Nilsson, director of Community Engagement for St. Stephen’s Human Services. “They are sleeping on people’s floors, they are sleeping in vehicles, they are sleeping outside and they are moving around. Right now we have so many people in shelters that all we can focus on are the families or individuals in shelters. We don’t have the capacity to deal with folks who aren’t in shelters.”
Nilsson has a team of six full-time street outreach workers who try to provide resources for people experiencing homelessness.
People Serving People, a homeless shelter at 614 3rd St. S., has seen a spike in the need for beds for several months.
“We’ve been serving more than 100 families every night,” People Serving People CEO Daniel Gumnit, said. “… We are seeing a greater than 40 percent increase from 2009.”
Gumnit said there’s been a lot of collaboration between government officials and nonprofit leaders to fight homelessness.
“I would hate to see what the numbers would look like if there wasn’t this type of cooperation in communication between the city, Hennepin County, state of Minnesota and the nonprofits,” Gumnit said. “The amount of interaction and communication and the work we are doing collectively is pretty unique.”
Catholic Charities’ new facility Higher Ground on Glenwood is also at capacity.
“The shelter is full every night,” Tracy Berglund, director of Housing and Emergency Services at Catholic Charities, said. “It generally fills up around 7, 7:30, 8 at night.”
Higher Ground has a model in place to get people out of shelters and into housing. The building has 171 shelter beds, 80 pay-for-stay beds and 74 single-room occupancy, supportive, housing units and 11 affordable efficiency apartments.
“The pay-for-stay shelter is $7 a night or $42 for a week,” Berglund said. “The idea is that if folks get used to reserving for a week in advance, that will help them pay rent in the future. So once folks in pay for stay shelter find housing in market rate housing, we will pay out in rent or deposits the amount that person paid in for shelter services once they show us a lease.”
She said it has been a very successful program with moving people into next step housing and then creating open space for other people who need it. Berglund also said that there are four units left of the 85 permanent supportive housing.
Eric Mueller is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.