Homelessness and housing insecurity can feel intractable — too big and complex to get our collective heads around. That's why quiet stories such as one recently coming out of Hennepin County are so welcome. Earlier this month, the county and its partners moved their 700th person into permanent housing after experiencing chronic homelessness. By the time I caught up with them to learn more, that number had climbed happily to 714 people transitioning to a permanent home. This week, I checked in with Danielle Werder, team leader for the effort to end chronic homelessness in Hennepin County's Housing Stability area. She talked about the program and the role dignity plays in its success.
Q: This is a huge milestone. But clearly the process toward permanent housing is a long one. To what do you attribute your success?
A: It did not happen overnight. We've been using data to house people who have been chronically homeless since June of 2017. We knew we needed to focus on chronic homelessness, including adults who were languishing in shelters. If you have a finite group of people in shelters, day in and day out, you're not meeting the needs of those people. Interventions needed to be developed.
Q: What kind of interventions?
A: Once you know who is chronically homeless, things change. Ours is a person-centered journey where we coordinate and match people with what they need through the coordinated entry system, which matches people to units dedicated for tenants who were formerly homeless. Other housing options might include public housing, particularly for those who are 62 and older; or a normal apartment with a landlord where we help to pay their rent. It might be permanent supportive housing with mental health services on site or specialized housing if they have an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. We're also looking into the single-room occupancy model, where each person has his or her own space but shares a bathroom. This is not traditionally what you'd think of as housing from an upper middle class lens, but it's a dignified way to build independence.
Q: And dignity is so important here.
A: There is dignity in asking people what they would like to have in terms of living spaces, and in case managers saying, "I'm here to help you." That's a really big change in the housing focus. Now we have more people who are trained in the complex reasons for chronic homelessness so we might serve them better. Do they need an ID? A social security card? A birth certificate? All those things help us make sure that the shelter experience is brief and nonrecurring.
Q: But you're candid that a person's dream isn't always going to be his or her immediate reality.
A: It's a tricky dance. It's our case managers' job to ask questions in honest ways and to say, here is what is available to you and here are all your options. Your desires and needs are what is driving this, but you might not yet have enough money for that one-bedroom in downtown Minneapolis. That is a great goal. Here are baby steps we can take to get you there.
Q: Your data show that the median age of your population is 48, and the median months of homelessness is 37; more than three years of housing instability. I think that speaks to how difficult this challenge is.
A: And not just for us. Sometimes, people don't have enough income to live on their own, so they get into a shelter. Our data tells us that, after three months, it's harder to get out of a shelter. You start getting stuck in a routine.
Q: Aside from financial difficulties, what are other reasons people find themselves in long-haul homelessness in shelters or on the streets?
A: Maybe you have severe and persistent mental health issues but don't identify as such so you're not connected to the services you need. Some people live on the streets because they don't feel comfortable in a shelter, such as chronic drug users.
Q: Which of your collaborations are showing the greatest promise?
A: We are thankful for the collaboration in our network of single adult shelters, which work to make bed reservations for people based on their needs. With the onset of COVID-19, we have made shelter available 24/7. That means that case managers are able to work with people during the day to help them advance their housing plans. Our coordinated entry system helps connect people with housing providers to support their individual housing goals.
Q: How does Minnesota stack up to other states?
A: This is a source of pride for us. Hennepin County is part of Built for Zero, a movement of more than 80 communities working to measurably end homelessness, starting with veterans and the chronically homeless. We were the only large community that achieved a sustaining shift in the number of chronic homeless people. But we also want to learn from other communities and try to draw what we can from others.
Q: How about a success story?
A: We moved one man into permanent housing after living at the Salvation Army's Harbor Lights for 15 years. He had very complicated mental health barriers. His case manager supported him as he changed his routine and tapped into supportive services. Sometimes it's a change of tactic. It's about relationship-building and progressive engagement.