For years, Douglas Dorn bounced in and out of homelessness, mostly living out of his car and occasionally crashing on a friend's couch.
"Being homeless is the most lonely feeling. It's sadness and loneliness," he said.
But Dorn, 53, moved into a one-bedroom apartment two months ago — becoming one of the latest success stories chalked up by Hennepin County, owing to new strategies that seem to be making a dent in the county's chronic homeless population.
Hennepin County this year tallied the fewest number of people experiencing homelessness since the federal survey began in 2005, according to the county's recently released annual national homeless census.
County officials hope the decrease in the one-day count — a barometer that tracks trends in homeless numbers — isn't a one-time blip, but rather a sign that initiatives to move homeless people into permanent housing are working.
The county is adding more low-rent housing options and connecting homeless people with employment and training services. And it has dramatically expanded its team of social workers, who are using a so-called "by-name list" approach to put more homeless people into housing — a method proven to be successful in reducing homelessness among veterans across the state.
"The initiative of investing in person-by-person solutions is what's shifted the needle," said David Hewitt, the county's housing stability director. "We're doubling down on that approach."
For Dorn, it meant getting connected with Jamie Wolff, one of 35 county social workers who determine what each homeless person needs and the particular barriers stopping them from getting housing. They often find that trauma, stress and grief paralyze some from moving forward. Addiction, mental illness and criminal backgrounds can make finding housing difficult if not impossible.
"A lot of my clients are in the very darkest chapters of their journey," Wolff said.
Dorn grew up near Lake Minnetonka in what he said was an abusive family with a history of alcoholism. He wrestled with addiction, the law and failed relationships. leaving him on the street off and on for a decade.
Just when he was about to move into a home with his fiancée two years ago, she died. Life became a struggle again. His mother, sober for 25 years, saw his downward spiral with addiction and urged him to get help — something he had done "so many times before."
"It's especially hard to do when you're homeless and down on yourself," he said.
Dorn now has been sober for about a year. With Wolff's help, he obtained a federal Section 8 voucher that subsidizes his rent, and found a landlord willing to take a chance on him despite his 2013 felony conviction for aggravated robbery. He served 29 months in prison.
"I did those things, but that's not me," said Dorn, who now works as the groundskeeper for his apartment complex. "It was drugs. ... That's not who I am now."
"I pinch myself to remind me this is real," said Dorn, sitting in his apartment furnished with cast-off items he found on boulevards and freebies offered on social media websites. "I can breathe. I can rest my head on a bed and feel safe. I have a key that locks my door. It's the most beautiful, safest thing I've experienced in a long time."
For more than a decade, Hennepin County's annual homeless count showed little progress despite long-term initiatives and millions of dollars spent on efforts billed to end homelessness.
In 2006, the County Board and the Minneapolis City Council approved a 10-year plan — dubbed Heading Home Hennepin — to end homelessness. It was expected to cost upwards of $45 million.
But by 2016, the number of homeless in the county actually had risen to an estimated 3,100. The Great Recession and skyrocketing rents were blamed, and the plan came up short on the number of available units.
Since 2005, the number of homeless people in the county counted during the annual one-day census has remained stubbornly above 3,000, peaking at 3,731 in 2014.
"We were helping hundreds of people to get housing, but they were being replaced by the same number of people falling into crisis," Hewitt said. "It was like we were bailing water as fast as possible, but water was coming up over the sides at the same rate."
But this year's count, taken Jan. 26, showed a count of 2,678 homeless people — the lowest count in 17 years.
The county, along with communities across the United States, has had to come to grips with the idea that eradicating homelessness is nearly impossible.
"There will always be someone who loses their job, can't pay the bills and who will be evicted," said Nancy Esteves, manager for the Homeless Management Information System in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin's most populous county. Like Hennepin, Milwaukee County also is making strides in reducing homelessness.
The goal, said Hewitt, is to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. Once someone has a stable place to live, it's easier to address other issues such as addiction and mental health. he said.
From Jan. 1 to June 6, Hennepin County helped 860 homeless people move into permanent housing. Some successes are due in part to the county using lessons learned during the pandemic.
For example, the eviction moratorium enacted when COVID-19 broke out in 2020 helped keep people housed during the economic downturn. When the moratorium was lifted and evictions resumed, county officials began providing legal representation in housing court to help low-income renters before they tipped into homelessness.
Meanwhile, the county is using $91 million of about $245 million it received in federal pandemic relief funds for housing and homelessness programs. The money beefs up the $146 million that the county had budgeted this year for those programs — a $16 million increase since 2019.
County officials are investing most of the federal money into housing infrastructure in an effort to reap long-term benefits. They bought four hotels in Minneapolis, some of which have been leased in the pandemic to house homeless people. One of the hotels has been converted to single-room occupancy and the remaining three should be converted by the end of the year, Hewitt said.
"Converting hotels to single-room occupancy provides people with a dignified place to call their own at an affordable price," he said.
Meanwhile, as housing assistance made available during the pandemic dwindles, Hennepin County is doubling down on connecting people with resources to help them find housing or stay in it.
"For a lot of people, it's just about affordability and it's about getting them assistance to help with that," Hewitt said.
It helps that shelters that were open only overnight before the pandemic are now open around the clock every day, giving case workers more time to work with individuals.
Michelle Decker Gerrard, senior research manager for the Wilder Foundation, said the decrease in Hennepin County's homeless count appears to be a "hopeful sign." State officials also give props to Hennepin County.
"Getting the resources to do the things we know work are rarely on the scale that's needed," said Eric Grumdahl, deputy director of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness. When that does happen, he said, there's "amazing progress."
Curbing homelessness among veterans is "our shining star," he said. Since 2014, the state has used the "by-name approach," enabling social workers to help individual veterans find housing.
St. Louis County is the latest Minnesota county to clear rigorous federal benchmarks with a system that prevents veterans from becoming homeless whenever possible, Grumdahl said — and quickly connects them to services to get housing if they do.
That 85 of Minnesota's 87 counties "have reached that benchmark is a testament to approaches that we know work," he said.
With the help of Hennepin County, Gregory Williams, 37, moved off the streets in June and into a one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood. "I never thought I actually would be in my own place," he said.
With his father often in prison, Williams grew up in Chicago in a single-parent household. At 19, he set out for Minneapolis to find something better than the crime-riddled neighborhoods he grew up in.
But for most of the years since then, Williams has been homeless — sleeping on trains, sometimes couch surfing and staying in abandoned buildings close to wherever he found work. He didn't earn enough to pay rent, and homeless shelters often were full.
Sleeping on the streets sometimes gave him nightmares. "It's scary," he said. "You see people look like they want to take from you and you don't have anything."
He hopes his days of living on the street are over. His apartment is furnished with little more than a bed, but that doesn't matter to him right now. Having a home means his life can change. He can get a better job that pays more than the sales job he has, and possibly even a car, he said.
"I know I can keep pushing myself," Williams said. "I know I can do it now. I finally feel like I'm welcomed on this earth."