Hennepin County is rolling out a first-of-its-kind strategy to find affordable housing for its most vulnerable populations, including youth leaving foster care and recovering addicts looking for stability.
The County Board asked housing staff to identify groups whose search for a place to live is hampered by disabilities, low income or other barriers. The target will be clients receiving county services, a comprehensive approach never tried before to close the housing gap for people frequently churning through the system.
More than 30 population groups at high risk were identified through the use of county databases and a point system to determine those with the greatest need for immediate housing. That list was whittled down to about a dozen groups, including adults with complex medical conditions, the chronically homeless and sexually exploited youth. For all these populations, the county estimated it needs another 3,100 housing units.
“The staff has been doing some serious thinking how to move the needle on this issue,” said Deputy County Administrator Jennifer DeCubellis during a briefing for commissioners Thursday. “They identified the demand across the county — what has been tried and where we have gaps.”
Board Chairwoman Jan Callison said she doesn’t know of any other county that has tried a similar initiative, which has been in development by Hennepin County for the last year. She described the information presented so far as “compelling.”
Parents in Callison’s district have called with concerns about where their children with special needs will live once they’re out of the house.
“It’s part of the consciousness in Hennepin County. There is now an urgency to really drill down and focus on it,” Callison said. “The shortage of affordable housing exacerbates the problem.”
DeCubellis cited many examples of how the housing gap regularly hurts the county’s clients and its pocketbook. Lack of housing for the mentally ill lands them indefinitely in institutions such as the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center at a cost of $1,300 a day. It means people with complex health problems may linger in a hospital bed for weeks or months, racking up big bills for hospitals and taking space from patients who truly need hospital care, she said.
The shelter system is less expensive than some other housing options, but it is only a stopgap, she said. If a person can’t get out of poverty and find stable housing, the county and state pay through public assistance.
As part of the new strategy, the county created a “prioritization algorithm” to determine the most vulnerable clients. Besides safety and disability issues, the scoring system considers criminal history, age, past housing evictions and living situations that were disrupted by chemical dependency treatment or jail.
At Thursday’s briefing, County Commissioners Mike Opat and Jeff Johnson voiced concerns that a criminal history might benefit someone seeking housing by moving them to the front of the line. DeCubellis assured them that wouldn’t happen if that was one of the only factors to determine a client’s priority ranking.
Beyond housing, the strategy also takes into consideration a client’s education, employment eligibility, income and other potential need for services. The county has more than 200,000 private-market housing units, 14,000 of which have supportive services for the disabled or others with special needs.
Opat was stunned to learn that 25 percent of the county’s rental housing units are subsidized, a total much larger than he expected with the construction of so many apartment projects in the past few years. A significant goal of the new strategy is to maximize existing state and federal housing dollars, leveraging county funding when needed.
“We also need to look at more private dollars and partnerships,” said Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “Only public money won’t cut it.”
Lisa Thornquist of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness discussed one of the most expensive groups to house — chronic substance abusers who cycle in and out of detox. Their data showed that more than 350 people had five or more detox stays, and 150 had at least 10 in 2017.
“They get help from everywhere in the system, but we just aren’t finding the best solutions,” she said. “The resources are out there; we need to find them and bring it all together.”
Some of those resources are already in place. In November, the county started the Hennepin Housing Key, a database that matches clients with openings in housing programs. The database includes more than 14,000 units. Thornquist also mentioned the possibility of a respite facility to serve detox clients and put together a clear plan to find long-lasting housing instead of a potential nursing home stay.
Housing planner Julia Welle Ayres offered up some ideas centered around landlords, often a large roadblock for the troubled populations the county is working to help. She suggested landlord engagement and incentives for taking in county clients and expediting the moves of group home residents into individual housing to free up more space for those in crisis.