Hennepin County moves to decentralize social services

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 9, 2012 - 9:21 PM

Satellite offices should ease hurdles in applying for help, county says

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Damin Shutford of St. Paul, left, waited for a friend who had an appointment while Qhia Lor and Pa Yang, right, of Brooklyn Park, waited for their appointment at the new Northwest Family Service Center in Brooklyn Park.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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With six children, life is hectic for Pa Yang and Qhia Lor.

Finding the time and money to get to downtown Minneapolis for social services made it even more challenging.

Now, however, the young couple need only a few minutes to drive to a new suburban Hennepin County services hub to seek government help with money, health care and food. "It's more convenient. I like the parking and it's closer. We don't have to drive too far," Lor said.

The Brooklyn Center hub is part of a $41 million, five-year project to close the downtown Minneapolis service center and open centers in six locations to bring county services closer to the people who need them. The county approved two more centers last week that are slated to open next year.

"We're moving direct services out," said Rex Holzemer, who oversees the project for the Human Services and Public Health Department.

At the Brooklyn Center hub, which opened Oct. 1, proximity to home and free parking appear to be big hits.

The county had projected 250 customers would walk in each day, but some days bring in well over 400. "When you make services available, people will come," Holzemer said.

Hub a cutting-edge approach

Lee Thao, his wife and two toddlers, who live in Brooklyn Park, waited for help, the younger child squawking in a stroller and the other pulling on dad's leg for his attention. "I don't think it's as congested," he said of the waiting room.

Thao's hours as a security guard were cut and he went to temporary work. In terms of assistance, he said, "We're just looking to see what's out there."

From the outside, the hub looks like many suburban offices. The inside bucks the stereotype of a grim welfare office, its walls painted in serene blues, tranquil yellows and leafy greens. With its smorgasbord of social and educational services, county officials say the office provides a cutting-edge approach to work and management.

One in five, or 200,000, county residents receive services, with 25,000 to 30,000 clients trekking downtown each month to the Century Plaza building and often paying for parking. Now, they are not only closer to home, they only have to tell their story once to an intake person who then directs them to a panoply of services -- many of them in the same building. In the past, a resident might have gone to one person for general assistance, then off to another office and started again with another intake person for mental-health services or educational options.

Each hub will be paired with a private organization and offer free space to others part time. The Brooklyn Park building is an outpost for the Osseo Area Schools Adult Education Center and the nonprofit Community Emergency Assistance Program. Once a month, a dental clinic will set up there to provide care for children.

More sites on the horizon

Two more sites are expected to be open next year. In south Minneapolis, the county will negotiate a lease to use part of Sabathani Community Center Inc., which has a food shelf, clothing and household goods distribution, after-school programming, a senior center and health and wellness services for all ages. The other will be in Bloomington, in a building shared with Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People.

The other three sites should be open by the end of 2014. The county is negotiating for space in the Wells Fargo Bank Building in downtown Hopkins, and the central/northeast Minneapolis site will be opened in the Health Services Building at 525 Portland Av. The final hub is to go in north Minneapolis, but the county is still looking for a site.

The relocations mean the county would vacate the Century Plaza building and potentially try to sell it and another unused facility, helping to offset the cost of the project. The county has hired a local firm to study the feasibility of building a 1,000-room hotel on the 2.6-acre Century Plaza site, which is across the street from the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Carla Berrian, 28, of Minneapolis came to the Brooklyn Center building last week seeking help for a $1,195 damage deposit on a house. She liked what she saw -- at least after the first 30 minutes of her wait. "It's a lot better, a lot quieter, nicer and cleaner," she said.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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