When 43-year-old David Hagen had a series of debilitating strokes in February, he was living in a congested homeless encampment in north Minneapolis. After a few days in the hospital, he returned to the camp in a taxi. He could barely walk.

Spartan, brain-injured and slow to trust, Hagen avoided emergency shelters and was reluctant to ask for help. But volunteer Angel Beaumaster helped him connect with Hennepin County case manager Toni Wenbourne, who recognized Hagen's special needs and navigated the crush of paperwork that eventually led him to supportive and sustainable affordable housing in downtown Minneapolis.

Wenbourne was "a lifesaver," Hagen said. "If it wasn't for her, I'd probably be dead somewhere."

Hagen was considered chronically homeless — a person who is disabled and homeless for at least a year, like some of those living unsheltered in Minneapolis' myriad encampments. His placement was the result of Hennepin County's decision to prioritize housing for the most vulnerable of the homeless population, which helped reduce the number of chronically homeless people by 30% from 2021 to 2022.

Now county officials have unveiled an ambitious new plan to reach "functional zero" chronic and veterans' homelessness by 2025, joining with a national group following strategies to drive down those numbers until more people are rehoused every month in the county than those becoming homeless.

Under the plan announced Tuesday, county officials will report their homelessness strategies every six months to Community Solutions, a national group with the aim of ending homelessness. Submitting to that external oversight will allow the county to tap into Community Solutions grants.

Community Solutions touts a data-driven methodology that it says has achieved functional zero homelessness in 14 smaller communities across the U.S.. Now Hennepin County, along with Washington, D.C., and Detroit, will be part of an experiment to end both chronic and veterans' homelessness on a larger metro scale.

"We're looking at quality by-name list data, the ability to drive and sustain reductions over time, and [Hennepin County] stood out as meeting those initial thresholds," said Kally Canfield, the Community Solutions coach for Hennepin County.

When Hennepin County has three or fewer people experiencing chronic homelessness every month — as opposed to the current number of 338 — it will be able to say it has ended chronic homelessness.

Race to zero

Some say that while Hennepin County's new focus on prioritizing the most vulnerable makes the leasing process more intentional, it also slows it down.

As Alliance Housing's new south Minneapolis affordable apartment building sat half-leased this winter, according to Alliance Executive Director Jessie Hendel, a homeless encampment formed in a parking lot across the street. The frustrated property owner wondered why those living in tents couldn't move indoors when there were vacancies, and Hendel had to explain the county first had to identify individuals with the greatest needs and match them with the housing type providing the best chance for success.

Lost time comes at a cost for the housing provider. Units that sit empty for long periods don't collect revenue that sustains maintenance and don't qualify for the low-income housing tax credits that encourage private investors to build affordable housing projects in the first place.

Project for Pride in Living (PPL), which runs more than 1,500 units of affordable housing in the Twin Cities, has seen its vacancy rates rise from 3% before the COVID-19 pandemic to 8% since then. Higher rates of opioid abuse and untreated mental illness are among the reasons it's harder than ever to match those in greatest need with housing they can retain, said Sarah Koschinska, PPL's senior director of resident services.

Koschinska said that PPL has been talking with Hennepin County about simplifying the multi-step housing process that even professional caseworkers have difficulty navigating.

Bergen County, N.J., which is three-fourths the size of Hennepin, was one of the first local governments to reach functional zero chronic and veterans' homelessness. Julia Orlando, Bergen County's housing director, said Community Solutions' methodology helped them pivot from first-come, first-served thinking to reserving resources such as shelter beds for the most vulnerable.

"I was nervous, because what happens if we do this big bold goal of trying to end homelessness and we fail?" Orlando said. "I really had to sit with myself for a moment and think, 'So, what's the worst thing that happens? You house a lot of people. Is there really any downside?' "

Hennepin County has announced lofty goals before. In 2006, the Heading Home Hennepin initiative aimed to end homelessness in 10 years. Then the Great Recession of 2008-09 hit, along with shortages in affordable housing. When the deadline arrived in 2017, county and city officials acknowledged that homelessness had increased during the preceding decade.

The metro area has grappled for years with an explosion in encampments. But the county has been overhauling the way people access its services with feedback from Street Voices of Change, a Minneapolis group launched in 2016 by advocates who have been homeless.

Since 2017, Hennepin County has moved 1,300 people into housing with a 97% retention rate. Those people had been homeless for an average four years, said David Hewitt, the county's director of housing stability, at Tuesday's launch of the county's new goal.

"This is a crisis, and it is unacceptable," he said. "But we can do something about it, and when we do, it works."

The county's recent progress includes setting up a shelter hotline (612-204-8200), buying and renovating hotels with federal COVID-19 money, compiling an index of people known to have been on the streets for years and hiring case managers to walk them through the often lengthy search for supportive and sustainable housing.

"There's a lot of mistrust with the systems," said Danielle Werder, area manager of Hennepin County's Office to End Homelessness. "Breaking down those barriers has been a really important part of our progress here."

A chance at success

Hagen had been homeless most of his life. He said his brain injuries could be traced back to childhood when his brother bashed him with a vase. When he was unable to return to his job scrapping cars because of his strokes, Wenbourne set Hagen up with general cash assistance and an ID so he could have a cellphone to stay connected with her in their search for affordable housing with disability services.

It paid off. When Catholic Charities' Endeavors Residence opened last year in downtown Minneapolis' Elliot Park neighborhood, Hagen moved into a one-room apartment with a shared kitchen and bathroom — a type of housing legalized in 2021. For the first time in years, he had keys to his own space.

Manden Woodard, 43, spent the first week in his new south Minneapolis apartment catching up on sleep. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, he moved to Minneapolis 10 years ago for addiction treatment and had been homeless off and on ever since.

Last spring he served four months in the county workhouse after violating probation for domestic abuse. When he got out, he lived at Catholic Charities' Higher Ground pay-to-stay shelter for single men, resolving to stay single while working on himself. Eventually a caseworker got him into Alliance Housing's new affordable apartment building, where 40% of units are reserved for people coming straight from homelessness.

Nonprofit Avivo provides on-site support, reminding tenants who haven't had a lease in years to pay their rent on time and maintain boundaries with friends who still live in encampments. Tenants can invite people over to shower and have a meal, but building rules don't allow overnight guests.

"I was so happy, I could have done a backflip," Woodard said. "There's nothing like having your own key to your own door, coming in and out whatever you want to, not having to worry about someone telling you to get out."