David Hewitt wondered what his large team of homeless and youth workers had gotten him into back in August.

Hennepin County and four cities were selected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to find housing for homeless youth during a novel 100-day challenge. Hewitt was surprised when his group set a goal of 150 people ages 16 to 24, 50 more than he had expected.

The county crushed that total. Officials either found housing for or reunited 236 youths with family members. And 57 percent of them are now employed, though that was shy of the 75 percent mark the county was hoping to achieve.

“We blew our housing goals out of the water,” said Casey Schleisman, co-leader of the challenge along with Hewitt. “We learned a lot in the process that will have impact and sustainability in the future.”

Hewitt, who directs the county’s Office to End Homelessness, said their application for the federal initiative was the only one to focus on employment and a centralized pipeline to find jobs. It also offered creative housing solutions.

More than 35 percent of the 236 youths were reunited with family. Employment included jobs and paid internships, job training, education opportunities and work readiness programs. The county did it mainly with its own resources; it got technical assistance from HUD but no funding.

The four cities taking on the challenge — Baltimore; Columbus,Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; and Palm Beach, Fla. — achieved or just missed reaching their goals. After Hennepin County, Baltimore came in second with 132 youths served. The challenge, which ended Nov. 8, moved a total of 686 youths out of homelessness.

Opening doors

Tnanita Hatley saw success firsthand. As the program manager of a 30-day shelter called Hope Street in Minneapolis, the challenge found employment and housing for a 19-year-old woman who had been homeless since leaving drug rehabilitation in June.

Hope Street helped her out with a welcome basket that included bedsheets, a blanket, plates, pots and pans. A follow-up last week found the woman doing well, said Hatley.

“She was a go-getter,” she said. “As long as she kept moving, drugs weren’t on her mind.”

With the current rental housing market very tight, she said, landlords generally don’t want 18- or 19-year-olds working part-time to fill their units.

“But the challenge did open doors,” Hatley said.

The 30-member Hennepin County coalition behind the challenge met weekly and collaborated with the selected cities. Each local jurisdiction once tracked its own data, but information now was shared systemwide with all the partners from the challenge.

A key component of the county’s initiative was connecting young people with job opportunities they would enjoy and that offered wage increases, said Schleisman.

“We needed employees that understood what needs to be done when working with a young person, and who would be willing to be a mentor and a coach,” she said. “Earned income and housing stability go hand-in-hand.”

Many adolescents don’t have a lot of skills to get that first job, and the homeless population is at an even greater disadvantage.

Multi-faceted effort

One innovative approach to finding jobs came during a job fair at the Mall of America in Bloomington. Of more than 75 youths attending, 17 were given interviews on the spot. Several hospitality businesses in the Twin Cities also guaranteed several dozen jobs that will pay $15 per hour.

“We’ve made significant progress helping young people find employment, but our team can’t do this work alone,” said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and a challenge sponsor. “We are recruiting employers and property owners who are interested in making a difference in our community.”

To find housing for the homeless, the challenge made family unification a top priority. After that, a variety of options were in play: Market rate or public housing? Group residential and transitional housing, or living arrangements with a roommate?

Taking on the 100-day challenge was a leap into the unknown, said Hewitt. Selection for the initiative involved no funding, “so you really just had to accept the challenge and take off,” he said.

“With other initiatives, you plan and work out and figure a specific approach and resources,” he said. “With the 100-day challenge, we really don’t know how it’s going to pan out.”

They wanted to make sure housing and employment services for the homeless were made as easy and seamless as possible. And the team members who worked on the challenge represented front-line workers and youth themselves, he said.

“The team in itself was fascinating,” said Hewitt. “They work intensively together. They all had such different backgrounds. And all of them were students and had day jobs.”

‘A community asset’

The challenge’s success speaks for itself, and he said the county will consider doing it again. But right now, he said lightheartedly, they need a break.

The initiative is another tool in the toolbox for the county’s ongoing campaign to end youth homelessness, he said.

“It’s not like we reached the 100 days and that’s it,” he said. “This is now a community asset. It worked brilliantly.”