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Hundreds of homeless men sleep next to each other on metal bunk beds in a barracks-like room. Others are on floor mats in the chapel of the Salvation Army's Harbor Light shelter.
On some nights, dozens of women sleep under harsh fluorescent lights on mats in the third-floor hall at the Minneapolis shelter.
Despite numerous public and private programs that spend millions of dollars confronting homelessness, some of which have had marked success, new figures show the number of people with nowhere to live continues to grow.
Harbor Light reported another record-breaking year, with an average of nearly 500 people jammed into the building on any given night. The number of homeless families in Hennepin County rose to 1,453 last year, the highest number in more than a decade but down from a high of 1,817 in 2000.
The problem is metrowide. Gerry Lauer, director of the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, says the center gets between 175 and 200 homeless people a day at its overnight shelter. Another 20 to 40 people are housed in a nearby building that handles overflow.
"The numbers we have been seeing have been steadily increasing," Lauer said. "In the summer we turn them away and they camp outside our facilities."
Advocates say homeless people are still facing fallout from the poor economy, high foreclosure rates and tight housing market that leaves few options for low-income renters.
That's little consolation to Debbie Wind Gleason Bose, 52. "I get so tired, I get frustrated," she said as she put a mat down at Harbor Light a few weeks ago. She said she suffers from depression and spent the day sitting near a locker close to Lake Street where she stores her belongings.
Despite the increases in homelessness, local advocates point to some positive developments, driven by a 10-year campaign to end homelessness that was launched five years ago.
"I believe that it would have been horribly worse if it were not for the 10-year comprehensive plan and by all the work Hennepin County is doing," said Daniel Gumnit, CEO of People Serving People, the main family shelter in Hennepin County. Gumnit notes that his own shelter had a record number of families last year.
Hennepin County says it spent $9.3 million in county and state funds to cover the cost of providing shelter to the homeless in 2012; that does not include large amounts spent by nonprofit agencies. The county says it spent another $5.7 million on homeless prevention and a program called "Rapid Re-Housing" for people who end up in shelters.
Some of the effort is paying off. The county has seen a decrease in the number of "chronically homeless" -- defined as people who have been homeless for more than a year or have been homeless four times in the past years -- from 775 on one night in January 2009 to 351 on one night in January 2012.
With the help of St. Stephen's Human Services, and the support of a case manager, Darrell Bandy, 49, now has his own apartment.
"It's wonderful," he said. "I can wake up and make my own breakfast. I can wash my own clothes. ... It's a blessing to know you don't have to wake up in that jungle."
Dawn Carter is on her way to independence. Homeless and jobless, she moved into the Harbor Light in October, the first time she was in a shelter. "I just sat on my bed and shook my head for three days," she said. "It was terrifying." But she picked herself up, got a job in customer service and was moving last month into her own room at Harbor Light and will pay $350 a month.
A new project called the "Top 51 Pilot" is helping to make a dent in the longtime homeless population. The project combines case managers and housing workers in two teams of three to target the 51 people who use Hennepin County shelters the most.
"Their job is to bird-dog them, check with them every day, building relations, identifying benefits they may be eligible for, connecting them with other resources they need for mental health and chemical health," said Matthew Ayers, project manager for the Minneapolis-Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness.
At least a dozen of the top 51 are now housed.
The length of time spent in shelters is also going down. Ayers said more than half of the people who use shelters stay less than a week, and half of those people stay one night.
Another aggressive program launched by the Department of Veterans Affairs has reduced the number of homeless veterans in Hennepin County from 267 in January 2009 to 126 in January 2012, Ayers said. "We have turned this into a community effort where every shelter, every drop-in center, every social service agency is collaborating with the VA," he said.
Statewide numbers out soon
Still, there are other indicators that the problem is a long way from being solved.
Wilder Research, which conducted a statewide homeless survey last fall, a project it does every three years, will release its data this spring.
Greg Owen, the study director, said "the early indications of the shelter counts are that the numbers are significantly higher than 2009," when 4,576 adults and 2,857 children were in shelters.
Owen said he has great concern about the high proportion of minorities in shelters and those with serious health problems or victims of domestic abuse. "Many of the strategies to develop affordable housing do not address these fundamental issues," he said.
Michael Jones, 37, said he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies and has been homeless two years. Sleeping at a shelter can be difficult, he said. People come in intoxicated and if you don't watch out, someone can steal your shoes or other belongings, he said.
"When I wake up, I say thank God for another day," he said as he sat on an upper bunk at Harbor Light. "I try not to let it get me down."
'People like me'
Elena Menz, 29, and her five children, ages 2 to 12, are among the growing number of homeless families. Menz was forced to leave her duplex in Lakeville because of an abusive situation and eventually ended up at Mary's Place, a homeless shelter in Minneapolis.
Her shelter "apartment" includes a room with bunk beds for four of the children, a kitchen and living room area, and a bedroom for her and her youngest child.
"It's not the prettiest place, but it's a roof over our heads and it's home for us," she said.
Menz said she was laid off from her telemarketing job before Christmas and is struggling to make the $293 a month payments on her sport-utility vehicle and owes $1,400 for the last month's rent at the duplex. With only a high school diploma and not much of a résumé, she said it is difficult to get work.
"There are a lot of stereotypes of homeless people, people standing on the street who are begging for money," she says. "Then there are people like me. I walk down the street and you wouldn't know that I am homeless."
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224