A decadelong quest to end homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County has yielded discouraging results: The number of people without homes hasn't dropped. It has risen.
There are 231 more homeless people — living in the streets, in emergency shelters or in transitional housing — in Hennepin County in the final year of the push than when it began in 2007. Last year's count found 3,125 homeless people in the county, which accounts for two of every five homeless Minnesotans. Homeless counts also are up statewide for the same period, despite an 11 percent drop nationally.
Advocates for the homeless blame the lingering effects of the Great Recession and soaring rents. While there have been some successes, including a decline in the number of homeless veterans, fewer people living without shelter and more robust support for people who need help navigating support services, there are still thousands of people statewide without homes.
At the downtown Minneapolis transit station, guard Shawn Marlowe said transients come in after the last bus or Blue Line train and leave again with the first one. "Every time I ask people to leave, they ask me, 'Where am I going to go?' " he said.
Some are chronically homeless and struggling with alcohol and mental health issues. But more than half are people in families, who find it more difficult to find housing.
"There were economic forces that made it really hard," Gail Dorfman, a former county commissioner who leads St. Stephen's Human Services, said of the plan to end homelessness.
Cathy ten Broeke, who works on state anti-homelessness efforts and previously led the Hennepin County plan, said ending homelessness boils down to making housing affordable and providing services so people can live independently.
But the will to do so, measured in money, hasn't been commensurate, she said, especially when the recession upset plans. The Minneapolis-Hennepin County plan called for an added $45 million; millions were spent, but county officials say they didn't track how much.
Shifting the focus
The goal of the 10-year push, similar to state efforts, was to shift from managing the homeless population to helping people prevent or escape homelessness.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty started by pledging 4,000 units of housing for long-term homeless people, a goal that cost tens of millions of dollars to achieve. The city-county plan called for making 5,000 units available through rent subsidies, rehab or new construction, though it's still about 1,200 units short.
The effort also prompted better coordination among agencies. There are more outreach workers developing relationships with people to see what services will help them off the streets. There is more money to help families avoid losing their housing and to rehouse them from shelters more quickly, especially when they are working.
There's also been a push to move the heaviest users of shelters, who also consume inordinate jail and emergency room resources, into more stable settings. Shelters have emphasized moving people into transitional or permanent housing, often with chemical dependency or mental health services. Simpson Housing Services, which runs a shelter, has 200 families and 100 individuals making that transition.
Nathaniel Mulligan recently moved into Continental Hotel, which houses 70 formerly homeless people. He did so while under supervision through a new court specializing in low-level offenses by homeless people in Hennepin County. He had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor public alcohol consumption.
"Enjoy your new place. Congratulations," Judge Bruce Peterson told him.
Some targeted efforts have paid off. In Hennepin County, the number of individuals living without shelter plummeted from 520 in 2007 to just 120 last year, and the total number of homeless people in the county has dropped from its peak in 2014. The number of homeless veterans statewide has been cut by more than half since 2006, thanks to state-led efforts.
Results from more recent counts, conducted in late January, aren't yet available.
Jeffrey Broege, 57, who is prone to depression and sometimes slept outside, learned about the Higher Ground complex run by Catholic Charities at an "opportunity center" where single adults can access help.
He started on the ground floor at Higher Ground, occupying one of 171 shelter beds. Now he's made it to the fifth floor, where he occupies one of 85 furnished, single-occupancy rooms. His case worker helped him get needed medical care. He's on the waiting list for a spot in a public housing high-rise.
"It gives you some self-sufficiency," he said.
Even at aging, less-formal shelters like Simpson Housing Services, a dim church basement with 44 bunks for men and 22 for women, there are more services. It's full, with a waiting list, every night.
"This is my go-to place," said Mandisha Kelley, 29, a Duluth native who has been coming to shelters in Minneapolis for a decade while battling alcohol and mental health issues. "They have helped me a lot in my homelessness. It's safe. It's clean."
Families have been more difficult than singles. Last year, 231 more family members were counted in shelters or transitional housing than when the 10-year push began. Foreclosure ousted some from their homes, and it's harder to find family-sized apartments.
"There is a real gap in affordable housing for desperately poor families," said Daniel Gumnit, CEO of People Serving People, which operates a 99-bed family shelter in downtown Minneapolis that's always been full in his almost five years there. "The market doesn't support that kind of housing."
Advocates for homeless people say much more housing is needed for those with low-wage jobs or on public benefits that, in some cases, have been frozen for decades while rents soar. The number of Minneapolis apartments considered affordable to people making less than half the metro-area median income has dropped since 2000 despite a boom in upscale rentals.
And some people, like Michael Lewis, are still struggling. He sits at a computer in the downtown library, where there's a homeless outreach worker stationed.
He said he was a machinist back in Michigan but he's mostly lived in shelters since coming to Minnesota in 2014. During last month's subzero weather he spent one night at the Mall of America transit station and another night at a downtown bus station after failing to call a shelter to claim the bed he'd reserved. How did he sleep? "You don't. You just stay awake," he said.
Breanna Schell, street outreach program manager at St. Stephen's, said people learn to cope, sometimes by riding buses.
"They know which drivers will let them sleep," she said.
Ten Broeke, who launched the Heading Home Hennepin effort, said ending homelessness is a matter of will: "I think it's both the political will at all levels of government to put those levels of investments in the solutions, and it's the community will to demand that that's what we want."