Economy shifts targets for homelessness battle

Rather than expand services, Heading Home Hennepin has to settle for what it already has

Surprising or not, Hennepin County’s fight to end homelessness by 2016 has continued to see real results over the past year. But it’s also hit a roadblock that likely won’t be overcome until the economy stabilizes.

In its third year, Heading Home Hennepin was hoping to rely on new partnerships — “grandiose plans,” as Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman called them. Expanded services, continued and increased health coverage and the sort, were part of the plan. Much of that has had to be put by the wayside, though, with the state Legislature battling through some of the toughest budget cuts in recent decades.

“We had to scale back and just say, ‘Preserve what’s working,’” Dorfman said.

Overall, the program has shown resilience. One hundred fifty single adults previously stuck in the cycle of homelessness have been housed, and police are seeing a significant drop in the number of arrests of people without a permanent address.

But much of that success has been based on temporary solutions: get people off the streets long enough for their lives to sufficiently stabilize so they can hit the job market and start earning a living.

Rental assistance, the main tool used in re-housing people, won’t go away. In fact, the Housing Trust Fund is expected to get a $4 million boost. Yet that remains more a stopgap than a permanent solution.

“In order to keep [formerly homeless people] in homes, they have to get jobs,” Dorfman said. And that’s become nearly impossible.

In the past, Heading Home Hennepin at the very least was able to get people jobs at fast-food restaurants, but even those aren’t available anymore. One restaurant hoping to fill 45 staff positions had 1,400 people apply, Dorfman said.

Then again, there are some more positives to speak of. The latest Project Homeless Connect, held May 11, was another success.

Downtown’s Drake Hotel, which in the fall was overrun by an overflow of homeless families, is down to hosting only about one or two families a night. Shelters are at capacity every night, but they’re holding up.

Meanwhile, organizations that deal with homelessness could see some other good news on the horizon. A bill introduced by state Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) that would allow eligible charities to purchase an unlimited number of half-priced bus tickets is still alive. It was met with bipartisan support at its introduction in February and, when this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press, continued to travel through the Legislature.

Minneapolis and Hennepin County also are in the process of applying for millions of dollars in aid from a new program created by the federal stimulus plan. Minneapolis is eligible for more than $5.5 million from the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program, Hennepin County about $993,000.

If received, 40 percent of those one-time payments would be spent on rapid re-housing, while the remainder would go toward preventing homelessness. All of it would have to be spent within three years.

Cathy ten Broeke, the city-county coordinator to end homelessness, said the plan is for Hennepin County and Minneapolis to subcontract the money to organizations. Requests for proposals will be expected from those groups in June, with contract negotiations to follow in August. The money is expected to arrive no later than the end of September.

“It’s a pretty aggressive timeline for any federal program,” City Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) said.

Yet while the results will help, they’re still a temporary fix. That means that while people are getting re-housed at a faster pace than before, they’re not set for an overly optimistic, permanent future. For the entire Heading Home Hennepin plan to work, the services hoped for but scrapped this year eventually will have to come along.

“The bottom line is, basic services only meet a quarter of our needs,” Dorfman said.

Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088, [email protected] or on Twitter at @sctraudes.