More than 1,000 homeless people in Hennepin County rely on a shelter to get a night’s rest, based on a count earlier this month, and another 400 have no shelter at all.
Ensuring those people find shelter and the services they need to get back on their feet is the mission of the Office to End Homelessness, a partnership between Minneapolis and Hennepin County formed just over a decade ago. Its new leader, David Hewitt, is ready to tackle the challenge of coordinating the web of public and private efforts focused on curbing homelessness.
“What we try to do is be at the center of a really complicated Venn diagram as kind of the connector of all these things,” Hewitt said during a recent interview at his office in south Minneapolis’ Sabathani Community Center. He joined the Office to End Homelessness in August and became its director in February.
Hewitt, raised on the outskirts of London, brings international perspective to the job. He spent nearly 10 years with Crisis, a major United Kingdom-based homelessness charity. He then moved to Cambodia and became development director for Tiny Toones, a nonprofit that used break dancing to connect with poor kids and improve their lives.
A review of Hennepin County’s homeless population earlier this month found that shelters were being used by 778 single adults, 169 families and 72 young people. Some of the office’s recent work has involved using data to ensure people get the services they need.
A new system rolled out last year has streamlined the process for placing people in shelters, for example, giving people who are homeless a one-stop shop for an assessment and referral to an open bed. Previously that may have required walking from shelter to shelter, hoping for an opening.
“We are using every shelter bed in a way that we weren’t before,” Hewitt said, adding that the office also now has a better understanding of shelter supply and demand.
That centralized shelter placement system will also help them tackle the problem of chronic homelessness, a focus area of the next decade. By tracking patterns in the shelter system, the office can identify people with disabilities who cycle in and out of shelters and connect them with the resources they need to stay on their feet — from health care to help with more permanent housing.
“Our emergency shelter system should be an emergency response for people facing homelessness,” Hewitt said. “It shouldn’t be an environment in which people are essentially living for long periods of time or regularly having to return to for extended periods of time.”
The goal will be to learn more about people’s personal stories.
“What has worked for them in the past? What hasn’t worked for them?” Hewitt said.
Another focus for the next decade will be youth and families. Hennepin County is one of five communities in the country participating in a 100-day challenge this summer to connect 100 young people with housing and 100 young people with jobs, Hewitt said.
“I think what we as a homelessness response system can look to do is make sure that homelessness is rare, that it’s brief if it occurs, and that it’s nonrecurring,” Hewitt said.