Hennepin County kicked off its latest major effort to combat youth homelessness Wednesday with an ambitious challenge to house and find jobs for 150 youths in 100 days.
The initiative follows the recent conclusion of the county’s 10-year homeless plan. While there was a slight uptick in the overall number of homeless people during that time, the county saw a significant reduction in the number of homeless veterans, people on the street without shelter, chronically homeless people and families with children found on the street.
Hennepin County was one of five cities and counties selected for the 100-day challenge by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. While the prize involves some funding, it’s mainly a chance to collaborate with other challenge winners on what works. Hennepin’s application was the only one to focus on employment and a centralized pipeline to find jobs. It also offered creative housing solutions.
The challenge will focus on youths ages 16 to 24.
“The 30-group coalition behind this challenge is ground zero,” said Heather Huseby, executive director of YouthLink, a downtown Minneapolis nonprofit where agencies collaborate on services for more than 2,000 youths each year. “This is an initiative on steroids. We will be working quickly.”
The coalition, she said, includes nonprofit organizations; city, county and state representatives; members of the business and law enforcement communities; and front line workers who deal with homeless people on a daily basis.
The challenge involves offering job training and classes to help homeless youths complete their GED certificates.
Several hospitality businesses have guaranteed several dozen jobs that will pay $15 an hour, and staffers will look for housing options beyond the places designated for the homeless — for instance, reuniting youths with their families or other relatives, or using the traditional housing market. The Link, which is based in north Minneapolis and works with victimized and struggling youths, is building 47 housing units for homeless youths.
“We have set extreme targets, and we need a community response,” said David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. “This gives us a shot in the arm for our next cycle to tackle youth homelessness and the space to do something different.”
The cities of Los Angeles and Seattle participated in a similar 100-day challenge last year. Officials initially were skeptical, but ended up with great results, he said.
If Hennepin County is able to help 89 youths during the challenge, it would save $18 million in costs over a year, said Huseby. A snapshot of the county one night last summer found 349 youths without a home.
“In my 18 years of working with the homeless, I have found them to be resilient and hardworking,” said Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director of the Link. “They want stable housing and a real career opportunity. We will crush this challenge and sustain it to get new resources to end homelessness.”
The kickoff news conference featured two formerly homeless young women who gave only their first names. Lele, 22, faced many barriers as she tried to get off the streets, including a felony on her record and her sexual orientation. Now she is sober, the holder of a GED and has a 4.0 grade-point average in her college classes. Married with a child, she will be part of the team working on the challenge.
“I now feel a sense of freedom and relief,” she said. “You don’t know what it feels like to have your own place and be able to lock the door.”
Symmie, 23, was homeless for five years starting at age 15. Since then, she helped create a homeless program for parents at the Link and is the mother of a 7-year-old daughter. “I have room to be a better mother,” she said.
Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said the business community has a moral and economic imperative to support homeless youths. Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene agreed, saying the County Board has made sure that caring for this population is a priority.
“We will learn from other jurisdictions and recharge what we are doing,” she said.
The county coalition recently met in Baltimore with representatives from the other four challenge winners.
It resulted in a fruitful discussion, and Hewitt was surprised when the group said its goal was 150 youths, 50 more than he had thought.
“We won’t be stopping after 100 days,” he said. “I hope to have a much longer list of solutions when the challenge is complete.”