There's progress for the homeless in Hennepin County

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 26, 2013 - 10:26 PM

Hennepin County is midway through an intensive two-year pilot project aimed at getting people who haven’t had shelter for a long time into stable housing. Results look positive.


Men looking for housing made their way down the hill Thursday to line up for a place to stay at Catholic Charities Higher Ground shelter in Minneapolis.


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As he had every night for years, Roger Lisk was checking in to a homeless shelter when someone said, “Hey, come here. I want to talk to you.”

That person was Terry Ostrander, a Catholic Charities Housing First worker who helped move the 56-year-old Lisk into a stable home and a job within months.

Speaking Thursday from his south Minneapolis room, Lisk spoke of the peace in having a key to a room where he can come and go when he chooses, without being patted down by security or sleeping on a gymnasium floor with 200 men.

“Now I get off work, I come home. I got my Dr Pepper. I got a TV. I got a lock on my door. It’s so beautiful,” he said.

Lisk was one of those targeted for a novel, intensive Hennepin County effort to tackle long-term homelessness by zeroing in on the most frequent users of emergency shelters. A midterm report on the Top 51 project, a two-year pilot program that started in July 2012, shows progress:

Of the first 55 clients chosen for help, 26 found stable housing. Shelter use among the group as a whole dropped 23 percent, according to the report from the county’s Office to End Homelessness, which leads the Hennepin-Minneapolis 10-year effort to end homelessness by 2016. Ten formerly homeless clients were in private apartments, often with state subsidies. Another nine moved into rental units at Catholic Charities Higher Ground, 165 Glenwood Av. in Minneapolis.

The $550,000 that the county is spending on the Top 51 project is roughly split between Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army Harbor Light.

The money goes to pay for two social workers at each agency dedicated solely to the Top 51 project. Each case manager was given the names of 15-20 clients to pursue — a fraction of the number that most case workers see.

The county agencies are asking the County Board to extend the program in the 2014 budget through the end of the year, an additional six months.

Tackling long-term use

Emergency shelters are designed for brief stays, but for the Top 51 clients, the average stay was 10 years. These long-term users had multiple problems, such as mental illness, chemical dependency or health issues, with no safety net of family or friends. They had burned bridges.

Without persistent, personalized help, most of the long-term homeless were mired in a rut coupled with a belief that nothing would change, that “they would just continue doing what they’re doing,” Ostrander said.

Lisk said he had no hope for finding a home because he could only find day labor once or twice a week. “You can’t afford nothing,” he said. “You’ve got your cigarettes and $10 in your pocket and it’s got to last until next week.”

He said he was in the loop of bouncing among shelters for free meals, then checking into one to sleep for the evening. He would be back on the street by 6 a.m.

“The top folks are the ones who would turn around and walk away,” said Lisa Thornquist, planning analysis supervisor in the Office to End Homelessness. “They’ve been very good at avoiding everyone for years.”

Building trust

With client names in hand, Ostrander and his colleagues joke about stalking their clients to build a trusting relationship.

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  • Calvin Emory, 49, who was homeless for about 4 years, talked about how much he enjoyed the privacy at the Higher Ground in Minneapolis, Thursday September 26, 2013. "I call this place my home because it is, " said Emory. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE)

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