At Stepping Stone Emergency Housing, it’s always been tough to place some of the residents who are chronically homeless.

Stepping Stone didn’t turn them away, but that meant those beds were tied up for long periods, making it harder to help more people, said Kevin Martineau, the organization’s executive director.

However, over the past few months, the 60-bed Stepping Stone, which is the only homeless shelter for single adults in Anoka County, has been able to line up permanent housing for 23 people. That includes a dozen who had stayed at the shelter for more than a year, said Martineau.

He attributes the improvement to the county’s “coordinated assessment process,” which was implemented in October. The process related to a federally mandated program that’s supposed to be in place by Jan. 1.

It has helped streamline the shelter’s work, according to Julie Jeppson, the development director at Stepping Stone.

As a part of the “coordinated assessment,” various organizations and agencies are collaborating more extensively to address homelessness, she said.

For starters, each is helping build a centralized database that tracks the people who make up the area’s homeless population, with information about individual needs. Those in need of housing are put on a waiting list, she explained.

In the past, people filled out applications at various places, so the approach was more piecemeal.

The database means the information is available in one spot, which provides more continuity among service providers.

“We know the needs and the resources needed. We know their background and can put them into appropriate housing,” Martineau said.

Historically, there was no such mechanism in place and people fell through the cracks, he said.

‘Points of entry’

As a part of the project, different organizations function as “points of entry” for homeless youth, adults and families. Stepping Stone, for example, is focused on people 21 and older, while the YWCA is working with those 20 and under. The Salvation Army is a point of entry for families, Martineau said.

This has led to better communication and increased efficiency. The coordinated assessment is good networking, he said.

Service providers conduct a “step one” evaluation with the people who come through their doors to sort out their needs.

“Some people think they’re falling off a cliff but haven’t yet. … Some people are already pushed over,” Martineau said. “We assess where they are with their pending homelessness” to get them into the right kind of housing, with services.

“We identify where they’re at physically, where they want to receive services,” he said.

A “step two” interview is a more in-depth evaluation. It’s a response to the federal government’s push to house the most vulnerable people right away, Martineau said. It’s about “looking at why someone is chronically homeless,” he said.

Before the coordinated assessment approach, about 20 percent of the residents at Stepping Stone were chronically homeless. By Jan. 1, all those residents will have been placed in permanent housing, Martineau said.

It makes a big difference at a shelter that has a waiting list of over 50 people, he said.

“That’s what coordinated assessment is all about, bringing all the players together and identifying the most vulnerable people,” he said.

Expanding at Stepping Stone

The shelter is also expanding so it can address more pressing needs.

It’s gaining 8,000 square feet of basement-level space that had gone unused. Although the shelter can’t add beds in that part of the building, it will be able to build out a cafeteria and prep kitchen. Construction of the $100,000 project, which is funded through a variety of sources, begins in January.

Previously, people had to eat in two small common areas. Residents had to take turns eating, it was difficult to serve meals and “it wasn’t a social experience,” said Martineau.

Now it will be easier for volunteer groups to come in with prepared meals. “The most important thing they do is talk to people one-on-one,” he said. “The people staying here feel invisible. They’re embarrassed to be here. When they converse with others, it makes them feel better about themselves. Like everyone else, they like the companionship.”

A few weeks ago, Stepping Stone set up a computer lab in the basement, which helps residents look for jobs and fill out applications.

The shelter also offers classes in everything from resume writing to budgeting. “If you give people a skill, you’re hard-pressed to find someone who wants to be in a shelter. They want to work out their issues that led to homelessness and try to overcome it.”

A small fitness center and rec room, along with meeting spaces, a doctor’s examining room and a bike shop, are being added in the basement.

Sixty percent of the shelter’s residents rely on bikes for transportation, he said.

A newly hired coordinator is focused on recruiting a wide variety of volunteers for the different types of activities, Martineau said.

“We don’t have any funding for that, so we’re reaching out to the community,” he said.

The idea is to help people be more prepared when they leave Stepping Stone. “A traditional shelter is a Band-Aid. Once you take the shelter away, people are right back to where they were,” Martineau said.

Making an impact

David, who asked that his last name not be used, has been staying at Stepping Stone for a year and a half.

Recently, he landed an apartment nearby; he plans to move in the coming weeks. It’s been a long, frustrating search but now “I feel like a kid before Christmas,” David said.

For David, the struggle began when he injured himself at work. As an assembly line worker at Honeywell, he often went through the same motions, again and again, throughout the day. It led to slipped discs in his back. That was several years ago.

David couldn’t do the work anymore. Since then, he’s been rejected from job after job, hindered by his back problems. His medical bills piled up to the point where he couldn’t afford his townhouse. When he was evicted, it was winter and he was out on the streets for four days.

When another health issue landed him in the hospital, he was referred to Stepping Stone. Since then, “I’ve been frustrated, depressed, angry. But I’m happy to be here,” he said. “I try to stay positive and say, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ ”

After he gets settled into his new digs, the 53-year-old is thinking of going back to school in a computer-related field. He’s hopeful about the future. “I won’t forget about this place. I’ll come back to give back. What it did for me is very special,” he said. “Stepping Stone saved me.”


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at