Officials say city-county effort to end homelessness is still on track, despite economic downturn.
Samantha Hannon and her son Tayvion, nine months old, wait on a metro bus to be taken to a shelter. The Hannon family was walking in North Minneapolis when the storm arrived. They took refuge in someone's house after leaving a home where they were staying temporarily. They are homeless and hope to find some permanent shelter.
The twister that tore through north Minneapolis last Sunday left at least 150 buildings uninhabitable and thousands of low-income residents facing major repairs -- typically the prelude to a spike in homelessness.
But even though shelters initially were jammed to wintertime levels, city and county officials said the crisis was manageable.
That's because Minneapolis and Hennepin County are in the fifth year of a decadelong initiative to end homelessness, an effort that they said has made significant progress, despite recession and foreclosures.
Fueled by the economic downturn, the number of homeless people has continued to rise since Heading Home Hennepin began, but the increases have flattened.
According to a recent report, program officials say services are better coordinated to help meet needs of the homeless, and 125 nonprofit, religious and business groups are working together to shrink the numbers.
Cathy ten Broeke, director of the city-county homelessness campaign, said she's confident the program will pay even bigger dividends down the road.
"When the economy improves for the people we're working with, we're going to see a much bigger impact because of the systems changes that have been put in place," she said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said that the infrastructure laid by Heading Home Hennepin enabled local leaders last week to respond quickly to the needs of residents forced out of their homes by the tornado.
For instance, Project Homeless Connect -- a semiannual one-stop shop that offers a range of services to those without permanent housing -- held a special event for storm victims. A housing team set out to line up transitional housing.
"People are getting served and getting what they need, and it happened quickly," Dorfman said.
Another sign of progress, she said, is that the average length of time that Hennepin County families stay in county-funded shelters before moving to a home is just over a month. In some areas around the country, she said, the average wait is nearly a year.
A Wilder Research survey in 2009, the most recent done, found 1,795 families using public and private shelters in Hennepin County, a 6.5 percent hike over the previous year. Single adults in shelters numbered 718, compared with 703 the year before.
Heading Home Hennepin's first goal is to stop homelessness before it happens. In the past few years, federal stimulus funds of $6.5 million helped workers find homes for families or individuals on the verge of becoming homeless. They were so successful that the number of families in shelters was stable from 2009 to 2010.
"That is a miracle," Ten Broeke said.
But federal funds are expected to end next year, and the prospects for more state funding to combat homelessness aren't good. Current state proposals, Ten Broeke said, don't cut funding, but they don't raise it, either.
The second goal is connecting homeless people with the services they need, and the third goal addresses the issue itself: creating 5,000 affordable units, typically by developing new housing or using rental subsidies to make market rate apartments affordable.
From 2007 to 2010, Heading Home Hennepin created 1,912 housing units, mostly rentals brought within reach through state housing funding and rental subsidies, and state and federal vouchers.
Nearly 300 units were in new developments where units were set aside for low-income residents.
Ten Broeke, who has became a nationally recognized leader on homelessness, said that recovery efforts in the tornado's aftermath will be particularly challenging. The twister destroyed or damaged housing in a low-income area, where many people rent and don't have insurance. About 50 stranded families moved into county shelters last week.
"Our challenge will be to connect them with apartments they can afford so they don't stay in shelters," she said.
Dorfman said it's not easy maintaining the momentum for a 10-year anti-homelessness plan, particularly during an economic downturn. But it can be done.
"The bottom line is that the political will is still there, that the community is still behind us and that we have the city-county implementation team seeing it through," she said.
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455