Imani Swinney moved to Minneapolis last year at the urging of her mother, who told her that the resources available in the city gave her a better shot at getting back on her feet.

Swinney and her two young daughters were "couch hopping," living with family and friends in North Carolina, when she decided to make the cross-country move to start over.

At first, they lived with Swinney's mom and friends. But last summer, they ended up in an emergency shelter for homeless families funded by Hennepin County at the Holiday Inn in Bloomington.

Once there, Swinney was surprised at how quickly county social workers helped her find income and food assistance. By fall, the family moved into a new apartment, and in the following months, Swinney got her driver's license back, bought a car, finished school and landed a job.

"You've got them by a landslide," Swinney said of the help available to families in Minnesota compared with some other states.

In recent years, Hennepin County has helped hundreds of families like Swinney's escape homelessness and find stable housing. County leaders say this is one of the last places in the U.S. that promises to house all families with children — no matter the cost.

David Hewitt, human services director for housing stability, said he summarizes the policy enacted in 2005 as "no child sleeps outside."

County leaders acknowledge that people from other parts of Minnesota, other states and outside the U.S. have come to Hennepin County because of the strong safety net. Still, county officials don't want to be the homeless shelter for other communities, so staffers work to determine which jurisdictions are financially responsible for those seeking help.

That can be difficult, especially for people from other states or countries.

County Commissioner Jeffrey Lunde said other communities may have "quietly rolled up their 'All Are Welcome' flags and put them back in the garage" but Hennepin County continues to provide shelter to everyone it can help.

Growing costs and a funding gap

Keeping up with the demand has been increasingly challenging — and costly. The need for family shelter space surged after the eviction moratorium implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic ended in 2022 and filings reached record highs.

A growing number of new arrivals from outside the U.S. further strained the system this winter, pushing occupancy rates of county shelters to 427% of their capacity. In February, more than half the families in the shelters were recent immigrants.

To cover the growing costs, the County Board in March unanimously approved $9.6 million in additional spending, pushing the budget for family shelters to $34 million for 2024. In April, the board agreed to spend up to $9,000 a month for a "safe space," which opened in December, that can serve as an overflow shelter when demand spikes.

County leaders rely on a mix of local, state and federal dollars to pay their homelessness prevention efforts. They partner with cities like Minneapolis and local nonprofits like Catholic Charities or People Serving People to provide shelter and services.

But funding for homeless shelters has typically fallen to local communities and charities. State support recently grew from $7 million to $22 million annually, but it still doesn't come close to meeting the demand.

Hennepin County expects to spend $50 million on shelters this year; much of the money will come from local taxpayers. County officials focused a big part of federal pandemic aid on funding shelters, but that money will soon run out; officials anticipate a $13 million funding cliff in 2026.

Nevertheless, commissioners have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to end chronic homelessness and improve residents' housing stability. They've successfully lobbied the state for new resources, such as more dedicated funding for shelters and rental assistance, as well as a new 0.25% sales tax for housing stability, which is expected to raise $29 million annually.

"A safe and affordable place to live is the foundation on which people build successful lives," County Board Chair Irene Fernando said in a statement. "Hennepin County has a person-centered approach to providing housing, shelter and resources; our goal is to help everyone gain access to greater housing stability."

It's not just the compassionate thing to do; it makes financial sense too, county officials said. People without shelter often end up in more costly places, like the emergency room or jail.

"All the stuff we can do to help people is much more effective if they have stable housing," Lunde said, noting that most people experiencing homelessness also need services for mental health, addiction and other challenges.

Minnesota's largest homelessness response

Hennepin County's promise to shelter all families with children is just one part of Minnesota's largest homelessness prevention and housing stability program. The work has nearly $200 million in annual spending and a staff of 196 working to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring, while investing in more affordable housing.

One of those staffers is social worker Mario A. Daniel, who works primarily with homeless young adults. On an April afternoon, Daniel checked in with clients at YouthLink in Minneapolis, which has a drop-in center with necessities like hot meals, showers and laundry as well as places to meet with counselors and other social service providers.

Daniel said a big part of his job is helping clients navigate the many barriers that keep them from stable housing. A missing identification card, bad credit or a poor rental history can shut them out if they don't know how to advocate for themselves.

"Everyone needs something different," Daniel said, but most importantly: "They need to realize that they deserve to have housing."

For instance, Daniel helped Swinney sign up for income and food assistance and pay off outstanding fines so she could regain her driver's license. He also helped her and her daughters get the essentials they needed for their new apartment.

"He's always on top of stuff," Swinney said. "I'm so grateful for him."