Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials say a new emphasis on finding housing for the homeless is less expensive than detox, hospitalizations, arrests, courts and jail costs.
Darrell Walton, a crack cocaine addict who suffers from schizophrenia, has been homeless for nearly a decade and has a rap sheet that just won't quit.
Since 2000, Walton has been arrested in Minneapolis 102 times for begging, loitering, trespassing and drug possession.
Now the 45-year-old is one of the reclamation projects of a new program in Minneapolis focusing in part on the downtown area's 200 most-arrested homeless people.
Two outreach workers ply the streets, connecting with Walton and people like him. They respond to police calls about the homeless to see if immediate intervention can head off arrests.
Eventually, the plan is to have enough staffers to respond around the clock, building the necessary trust with homeless people to get them off the streets and into long-term housing.
"We know you can't arrest homelessness away," said Mayor R.T. Rybak, an early proponent of the outreach operation as a key part of city, county and state plans to end homelessness.
Rybak added: "Having these outreach workers partner with the police means we can get [homeless people] the support they need to keep them out of the criminal- justice system and move them into a healthy housing situation."
Walton is one of 200 homeless people arrested five times or more in the past year in Minneapolis' First Precinct, which covers downtown.
"It breaks my heart," says Walton's sister Teowonna Shedd-Bamba. She said her brother was a bright student, but began hanging out with the wrong crowd and got caught up in cocaine. He's been in and out of treatment programs and mental institutions and is at his worst when not taking his medications, she said.
"Without the county services, there is not much for him," she said.
Virtually all of Walton's 102 arrests in the past eight years list no permanent address.
Outreach at work
Chiffon Williams first met Walton when she was an advocate at the Salvation Army homeless shelter four years ago. When she was hired as an outreach worker in October, she became his advocate.
Two weeks ago, she helped Walton move from the St. Stephen's homeless shelter into a small one-room apartment at the Evergreen, an 88-unit housing facility operated by Catholic Charities near the Minneapolis Farmers Market. She took him shopping for a small TV set, toiletries and essentials.
She also stood beside him and Monica Nilsson, head of the city outreach program, in court as they reported his progress to Hennepin County Judge Richard Hopper.
"Great, congratulations, fantastic, " said Hopper. "Keep up the good work. I'm really proud of you."
Later, at a cafe, Walton grew emotional as he tried to express his gratitude. "I don't think I've had support like this in my life," he said.
Aiming for the hard-to-reach
Of about 9,000 homeless people in Minnesota, 3,000 are thought to be in Hennepin County, said Cathy ten Broeke, whose title is Minneapolis/Hennepin County Coordinator to End Homelessness. She said authorities have been least successful at reaching a smaller, visible group of long-term homeless.
The Minneapolis outreach program began with an allocation from the city and the state plan backed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"The state Department of Public Safety wanted a partnership between the homeless outreach workers and the department to decrease law enforcement costs," Nilsson said.
The $365,000 local outreach program is underwritten by public and private money: $50,000 a year for two years from the state, $100,000 from the city, $60,000 from a fund connected with St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, $120,000 from a philanthropic group called the Partners Fund and $35,000 from private donors.
Nilsson leads two outreach workers, but there are plans to hire two more when funding permits.
The workers will be connected to police radios and downtown building security personnel so they can go quickly to incidents and try to head off arrests.
Arrests won't fix the problem
Of 1,424 people arrested in the city's downtown precinct in the past 60 days, 210 (15 percent) were homeless, said Luther Krueger, a police crime prevention analyst. "The law enforcement response, while usually justified by their behavior ... is not going to fix the problem," he says. "Without these outreach folks, they are going to arrest them again."
Dressed in their green jackets, the advocates have become recognizable in homeless camps.
One morning, Nilsson and Williams chatted with four people at a camp underneath Interstate 394. Nilsson hugged Charlene Goggleye, who says she sometimes sleeps at the camp. Robert Jackson and Darrell Sande took turns sipping a can of beer. Sande, who calls himself the "governor" of the camp, splits his time between the camp and Anishinabe Wakiagun apartments, where chronic alcoholics live.
"I've got my own personal defects," said Jackson, who sleeps outside under layers of blankets. "I'm sick and tired of what's happening to me."
Martha Burt of the Urban Institute, a nonprofit Washington, D.C., research organization, said successful outreach programs have sprung up in several cities, including Philadelphia and New York.
Most critical is providing housing and safe places besides homeless shelters, she said. Cities also must provide services "to help people stabilize in housing and live through the various crises and breakdowns they are likely to have," she said.
Laura Kadwell directs the state program to end long-term homelessness. "Outreach is the linchpin for getting all of this work started," she says. The goal is to have 4,000 units of permanent supportive housing by 2010 and is on track with 1,674 units so far, she says.
Is ending homelessness possible? she was asked. "I wouldn't have this job title if I didn't believe that," she said.
"Yes, this is labor-intensive and yes it is expensive, but we are spending a lot of money as a society on detox, on emergency room services, on shelters and jails for people, who if they had the services, would not be showing up there."
Staff researcher Roberta Hovde contributed to this article.
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382