Ted Dennis was a regular at the Dorothy Day homeless shelter in downtown St. Paul for years.
In fact, he was one of the top 100 users of the emergency shelter during the past decade, according to a list compiled by Ramsey County and shelter operator Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Dennis, 63, is now living in his own loft apartment in downtown St. Paul.
Ramsey County and the charity worked together to find stable homes and support services for 82 of the top 100 Dorothy Day shelter users, including Dennis.
“I am living a new life,” said Dennis, who wears a suit, tie and fedora every day. “I am meeting people who are not part of the homeless shelter system.”
The RUSH program — Redirecting Users of Shelter to Housing — started in 2017 backed by $400,000 in grants from the St. Paul and F.R. Bigelow foundations. It’s proven so effective that the Ramsey County Board has agreed to spend $200,000 this year to continue the program.
“We committed that if we got good results we would include it in our budget,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough.
The program has added 150 new names to the list — 100 from Catholic Charities’ emergency shelter and 50 from Union Gospel Mission, which also provides beds for the homeless.
“People move into shelter[s] and they get stuck,” said Tina Curry, Ramsey County director of financial assistance services. “This is providing permanent supportive housing in the community. It’s opening up our shelter beds and it’s allowing the shelters to operate like they’re intended. It should be a short-term housing option.”
RUSH is modeled after a similar program in Hennepin County that has helped reduce arrests and emergency room visits for participants.
Catholic Charities President and CEO Tim Marx said RUSH’s early success shows the power of partnerships.
“We’ve reached a new level of communication and collaboration,” Marx said.
More of these types of partnerships will be needed, he said, as the region confronts a ballooning homeless population that spilled out of shelters into larger outdoor encampments last summer.
Tonya Lennox is one of two caseworkers on the front lines of RUSH. Lennox was hired by Catholic Charities to spend time at the homeless shelter and on the street to develop relationships and trust with those targeted for help. When she was hired, she was told successes could be few and far between.
“You have to have a tough skin,” Lennox said. “These are not people who are going to jump at the first chance to get housing.”
The median age of those on the list was 59. Most have spent years, sometimes decades, on the streets. “The oldest client was 80 and the youngest was 21,” said Curry, the county’s financial assistance services director.
Lennox often starts by tracking down her clients at the homeless shelter.
“A big part of my job is learning their daily routine,” Lennox said. “Where do they check in and spend their time during the day?”
She said some of her co-workers and clients, in jest, started calling her a professional stalker because she would show up at the coffee shops, libraries and parks where they spent their days. Lennox usually starts out saying, “I know you don’t want to talk [to] me.”
Her clients vary greatly. Some have health problems and cannot work. She estimates nearly 40 percent work full time but because of old criminal convictions and bad credit, can‘t qualify to rent an apartment.
“If you have a criminal history, you are wasting the rental application fee,” Lennox said.
Some need many supportive services. Others need few.
Lennox said she often helps clients get state-issued identification cards and does other small tasks to build trust and keep the conversation going. Once clients have warmed to the idea of moving into housing, Lennox said she connects them with landlords and social service programs to match them up with an apartment.
“Some are subsidized. Some are market rate,” Lennox said.
Of the 82 placed, about five have exited the program.
She helped Dennis find his home after he’d been homeless for years. Dennis said he knew he would not succeed in a rigid, or very religious, program. He’d seen others accept those offers only to drop out months later.
“It’s hard when you are in shelter and someone is offering you shelter, to explain why it may not be a good fit,” Dennis said. “You look like an idiot.”
When Lennox approached, Dennis was apprehensive. But she listened to him: He wanted to live downtown. He didn’t need or want many services.
Lennox found him an apartment downtown, a few blocks from the river. He spent the first night on a blowup mattress and is slowly furnishing his place. Dennis has quit smoking and is back on medication for high blood pressure. For the first time in years, he said, he’s thinking about the future. “The shelter life puts you in a mind-set where you are not thinking long term. It’s a survival mind-set,” Dennis said. “Now I am thinking about my health.”