Hennepin County homeless program scrapped amid cuts

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2009 - 10:37 PM

Hennepin County's Street Case project, which serves about 60 people, was one of the first to focus on keeping chronic drinkers safe rather than merely sober.

As state cuts continue to drive concerns about rising homelessness, Hennepin County is scrapping an innovative 13-year-old program that combined peer pressure with rewards to help straighten out chronic alcoholics.

The Street Case Management Project will close its doors at the end of the year as county officials reassess how they can better serve the needs of the 60 or so clients who participate in the program annually, said Rex Holzemer, who oversees the project as an area director in the county's Human Services and Public Health Department.

"We'll come back in a few months with restructured programming for this population that incorporates some of the best practices we've learned and coordination with the hospital and other programs," Holzemer said.

The Street Case program was already headed toward termination sometime next year, because of the many other community-based programs that have sprung up to house and care for homeless and destitute alcoholics, Holzemer said. Those plans to end the program were expedited because two of its three full-time staff members are leaving now, he said, "and it didn't make sense to bring more staff in at this point." He added that no one will lose a job as a result.

Holzemer also denied that the Street Case program's end was connected in any way with County Board Chairman Mike Opat's recent criticism. Late last month, Opat asked for a review of the program after learning that it had spent $6,004 this year on Vikings football tickets for clients, which he said "cross[ed] a common sense line."

The program, which had a budget of $526,000 this year, was funded by $275,000 in state and federal grants and patient insurance and $251,000 in county property taxes.

The Street Case program began in 1996 with the goal of reducing harm to street people rather than simply turning them sober. "We weren't even coming close to sobriety with some of these clients, and we had to use some different approaches," Holzemer said.

The program was designed to help clients, through counseling and incentives, to stabilize their lives by reducing their drinking -- if not stopping it -- and helping them address food, housing and clothing needs.

One of the goals was to save the county money by lessening the need for expensive trips to detox, the emergency room or jail; no tallies have been kept, but officials estimate that the program has saved several millions of dollars over the years.

Among the carrots used in the Street Case program were group outings, such as boat rides or picnics, for which $20,000 was allocated through the state grant.

Last year, in response to client requests, officials with the program and the state Human Services Departments decided to include Vikings games on the list of group activities.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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