Tiffany Birch escaped a toxic relationship last year, only to land on the couches of friends and family and eventually in an Eagan homeless shelter.

Though it was safe, shelter life was taxing and its effects were starting to wear on her 6-year-old son, who began having “mini-mental breakdowns,” she said.

But now Birch has her own address. Through the efforts of Dakota County officials, she moved into the top floor of a Lakeville fourplex in early January with her boyfriend, son and a new baby.

Hers is one of 22 households the county has sheltered as part of its 60-day housing challenge, an expedited effort to find lodging for as many of the county’s homeless — numbering 347 families, single people and young parents at last count — as possible through Feb. 13.

County workers say the approach, which is new for them, brings a sense of urgency to the difficult task of addressing the county’s homelessness and affordable housing problems. Vacancy rates hover around 2 percent, said Kristin Bates, Dakota County housing supervisor.

“We just wanted, essentially, to put some energy and excitement around a community need,” Bates said. “We obviously have an affordable housing shortage in Dakota County and our wait list for emergency shelter is really high right now.”

The county also wants to recruit landlords who will accept housing vouchers and lease to people with problems like poor credit, evictions or criminal pasts. So far, that effort has come up dry — no new property owners have signed on, Bates said.

“We need help from our community, specifically the landlords, in order to really make this as successful as it could be,” she said.

Shaking things up

Bates said she and her co-workers got the idea of a “challenge” — a deadline-oriented contest of sorts — from Hennepin County, which recently undertook a highly successful effort to house as many homeless youth as it could in 100 days. Four other cities and counties across the country have taken on the same project.

The 100-day challenge format has been around for a while, said David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. It began in the international development field as a way to encourage creativity in solving long-standing problems.

Aspiring to house 150 youth, Hennepin County found homes for 236 teens and young adults, Hewitt said.

“I was very nervous when I saw that 150 target because I thought, we’re going to make a big public noise of it without knowing how we’re going to do it,” he said. “Where it really had a lot of value for us was as a way to shake up the way you work.”

Unlike Hennepin County, Dakota County didn’t set a hard goal or number of households it wanted to house, Bates said, since the concept was so new to them. Officials with both counties visited about the initiative, Bates said, and “had a fun conversation.”

The 22 families or individuals housed so far in Dakota County found accommodations in Apple Valley (five), West St. Paul and Lakeville (three each), and South St. Paul, Hastings, Rosemount, Burnsville, Farmington and Northfield. Three households signed leases outside the county, in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Maple Plain.

Of the 22 households, eight include someone who is currently employed, Bates said.

Birch, now a new mother, said she’s trying to get a job. Her 6-year-old son, Jaquel, is no longer angry and violent, she said, thanks to the stability of the family’s new home. Her boyfriend, Rob Spain, also recently was homeless after a fire destroyed his house in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Their new Lakeville neighbors have been kind, Spain said, and the peaceful neighborhood is full of kids. Bridging Inc., a nonprofit, helped them furnish the place with tables, chairs, bookshelves and a couch.

“It’s amazing,” Spain said of having a home. “It’s a big stress off both our shoulders.”