Hennepin County will no longer seek payment from families coming to its two main homeless shelters, a significant policy change several years in the making.

The County Board on Tuesday unanimously approved the change, which will cost the county $440,000 annually. The money will be absorbed in the county's $2.46 billion budget approved for 2022.

"It's unprecedented," said County Commissioner Angela Conley, who experienced home insecurity many years ago. "I have heard from families living outside that the main barrier to going to a shelter is having to give them money. The limited income they have is very precious."

The county's emergency shelter policy hasn't been updated since 2005. The COVID-19 pandemic hastened the county's effort to care and house individuals and families struggling with homelessness. County officials have purchased a half-dozen motels and hotels, and added new affordable housing thanks to hundreds of millions of federal pandemic relief dollars.

Families who could afford to pay at shelters spent an average of $200 for their stay, although each family has a unique set of circumstances, said Kate Heffernan, the county's senior department administrator for economic support. Some of that money comes from savings or public assistance, she said.

The county contracts with two shelters for homeless families, St. Anne's Place and People Serving People. The latter has started a pilot financial empowerment program with 11 families to help those about to leave the shelter. It offers classes to families and a small financial match for a cushion for potential permanent housing or other needs, said Monique Moore, program manager for economic supports.

Several other small shelters house families, but St. Anne's and People Serving People handle the majority of homeless families, Heffernan said. In the past few nights, nearly 200 people stayed at the two shelters.

Between 2014 and 2019, the county saw a 45% reduction in the number of families in shelters. This was accomplished through a strategy of diversion programming, employment support, financial assistance and housing support.

The pandemic has contributed to another large decrease in families in shelters. In 2019, there were 862 families in shelter, but that number dropped to 465 in 2020, Heffernan said.

The county already had implemented some reductions in pay for individuals at shelters. The change in the family shelter pay policy came about from a study with the University of Minnesota and input from people who had experienced homelessness.

"Our end result was trying to keep the stays in shelters rare, brief and non-recurring," Heffernan said. "We want to reduce barriers, get people help and having them leaving the shelter really strong."

A large majority of the homeless population is people of color, she said. Attacking homelessness is part of the county's goal to reduce racial disparity, she said.

Conley, one of the first two commissioners of color elected to the board in 2019, came into office with an immediate goal of researching and stopping the "pay for stay" policy at shelters. She spent a lot of time listening to people dealing with homelessness to hear about the barriers they faced.

For the upcoming winter, the county also voted Tuesday to eliminate fees at its homeless drop-in center.

"The money the county loses on pay at shelters doesn't hurt our pockets in the least," she said. "I'm ready to shout this news from the rooftops."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified People Serving People.