Housing crisis puts pressure on fight against family homelessness

Officials say families have been disproportionately affected by the increase in foreclosures

The goal of Heading Home Hennepin since its adoption almost two years ago has been to find stable housing for everyone currently labeled “homeless.” Efforts are a tricky combination of buying time, providing subsidies, networking with landlords and overcoming crises.

Real change has been affected. Police are seeing a significant drop in the number of arrests of people without a permanent address, and outreach workers have housed about 60 people directly off the street since last year.

In Hennepin County, rapid-exit programs have traditionally been successful. County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said that at one point, shelter stays were down to an average of about 24 days — enough time to find an alternative, more stable residence.

“But all of that has changed,” Dorfman said.

This year, the length of average shelter stays is up to almost 34 days. Meanwhile, the number of families staying in shelters has risen quickly, up 26 percent from 2007.

Blame the housing crisis.

Heading Home Hennepin officials say the ever-growing number of foreclosures has caused a ripple effect of disproportionate problems for families. Cathy ten Broeke, the city-county coordinator to end homelessness, said there are three reasons for that.

First is the obvious: the economy. People who had been able to scrape by despite spending 70–80 percent of their income on housing can’t do that in today’s economic climate. With layoffs spiking nationwide, the job market is tighter than it’s been in years. Getting income flowing again has become an exponentially more difficult task.

Second is that a lot of families are reaching the end of their 60-month Minnesota Family Investment Program assistance funds. Because the economy is weak, they’re not able to find other income sources.

And then there’s the mortgage crisis, which is causing two kinds of problems. For one, it’s sending nearly a 10th of the affected families directly to shelters from foreclosed homes.

But it’s also making Heading Home Hennepin’s work with longer-term homeless families more difficult. That’s because some newly foreclosed-on families are far from facing homelessness. Instead, they’ve entered the same renters market that Heading Home Hennepin is trying to navigate — and creating more competition
for space.

Ten Broeke said the vacancy rate of four-bedroom apartments in Minneapolis is down to zero.

“Our families, in a sense, can’t compete with foreclosed families,” Dorfman said.

A return to the Drake Hotel

With the spike in family homelessness, shelters began flowing over. That hasn’t been a pattern unique to Hennepin County, Dorfman said, but while other counties are turning people away, Hennepin has a right-to-shelter policy.

Help was found at the Drake Hotel in Downtown, formerly one of the most prominent homeless shelters in the area, Dorfman said. Despite the building’s past, it hadn’t been a shelter for years. Families found the conditions to not be particularly favorable.

Dorfman said organizers have worked with the Drake’s owner, Tim Treiber, to make several upgrades, including adding a playroom for children and a kitchen that serves three hot meals a day.

“It’s not a perfect situation,” she said, “but neither is shelter.”

Which is why Heading Home Hennepin’s ultimate goal remains getting people out of shelters and into homes, ten Broeke said.

The economy has forced several changes from the original plan, she said, but the intent always has been to make it a living, changing document. She said numerical goals — such as getting 2,900 families out of homelessness by the end of 2008 — will be recalibrated later this year, and families probably will become a bigger focus in 2009.

Efforts already in the works include applying for a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide 400 rental subsidies.

“We know that this is a very different environment than when we created the plan,” ten Broeke said. “When we created it, nobody even mentioned the term ‘foreclosure.’”

More on Heading Home Hennepin

Heading Home Hennepin is a 10-year plan that aims to end homelessness in the city and throughout Hennepin County by 2016. About 70 leaders in the community in a variety of fields developed the plan. The plan aims to match people experiencing homelessness with housing opportunities, support services and also expands the number of outreach workers on the streets.

Heading Home Hennepin also organizes Project Homeless Connect events — a one-stop shop of services for the homeless. The next event will be held Dec. 8 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Heading Home Hennepin is part of the statewide plan to end homelessness — Heading Home Minnesota.

For more information on Heading Home Hennepin, go to www.headinghomeminnesota.org/hennepin/