As he had every night for years, Roger Lisk was checking in to a homeless shelter when someone said, “Hey, come here. I want to talk to you.”

That person was Terry Ostrander, a Catholic Charities Housing First worker who helped move the 56-year-old Lisk into a stable home and a job within months.

Speaking Thursday from his south Minneapolis room, Lisk spoke of the peace in having a key to a room where he can come and go when he chooses, without being patted down by security or sleeping on a gymnasium floor with 200 men.

“Now I get off work, I come home. I got my Dr Pepper. I got a TV. I got a lock on my door. It’s so beautiful,” he said.

Lisk was one of those targeted for a novel, intensive Hennepin County effort to tackle long-term homelessness by zeroing in on the most frequent users of emergency shelters. A midterm report on the Top 51 project, a two-year pilot program that started in July 2012, shows progress:

Of the first 55 clients chosen for help, 26 found stable housing. Shelter use among the group as a whole dropped 23 percent, according to the report from the county’s Office to End Homelessness, which leads the Hennepin-Minneapolis 10-year effort to end homelessness by 2016. Ten formerly homeless clients were in private apartments, often with state subsidies. Another nine moved into rental units at Catholic Charities Higher Ground, 165 Glenwood Av. in Minneapolis.

The $550,000 that the county is spending on the Top 51 project is roughly split between Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army Harbor Light.

The money goes to pay for two social workers at each agency dedicated solely to the Top 51 project. Each case manager was given the names of 15-20 clients to pursue — a fraction of the number that most case workers see.

The county agencies are asking the County Board to extend the program in the 2014 budget through the end of the year, an additional six months.

Tackling long-term use

Emergency shelters are designed for brief stays, but for the Top 51 clients, the average stay was 10 years. These long-term users had multiple problems, such as mental illness, chemical dependency or health issues, with no safety net of family or friends. They had burned bridges.

Without persistent, personalized help, most of the long-term homeless were mired in a rut coupled with a belief that nothing would change, that “they would just continue doing what they’re doing,” Ostrander said.

Lisk said he had no hope for finding a home because he could only find day labor once or twice a week. “You can’t afford nothing,” he said. “You’ve got your cigarettes and $10 in your pocket and it’s got to last until next week.”

He said he was in the loop of bouncing among shelters for free meals, then checking into one to sleep for the evening. He would be back on the street by 6 a.m.

“The top folks are the ones who would turn around and walk away,” said Lisa Thornquist, planning analysis supervisor in the Office to End Homelessness. “They’ve been very good at avoiding everyone for years.”

Building trust

With client names in hand, Ostrander and his colleagues joke about stalking their clients to build a trusting relationship.

Ostrander frequently stands outside emergency shelters at 5:30 a.m. to hand out his cards. He and colleague Doreen Marie Donovan use all sorts of methods to slowly build connections with clients.

Donovan sends birthday cards. She meets people for coffee. She has taken clients for a ride in a car — a “normalizing activity” many of them haven’t done in years, she said.

Most of what the case workers do is reliably show up, become a confidant, provide peace of mind so clients can start to open up and see hope. “When you went to your first day of school, were you scared?” Donovan said. “It’s hard to do new things and you need mom there at the bus stop.”

Usually, clients come in to meet their case workers and if they don’t show, that’s that. The Top 51 workers are much more insistent.

Zach Johnson, a Top 51 case worker at the Salvation Army, said, “For us, if our appointment doesn’t show up at 3 [p.m.], we go looking for them until 5 [p.m.].”

Catholic Charities Housing First program manager Chris Michels said, “A lot of the clientele feel like they’re invisible, [that] ‘if I don’t show up here people won’t care.’ It’s empowering to them to have someone care.”

With their smaller caseloads, the workers have the flexibility to spend a lot of time with individual clients — or to give the clients space.

“We’re just spending time with them. It’s like what makes any relationship good — to take the time,” Johnson said. He cited a recent success: a client who wasn’t having coherent conversations with anyone. Johnson worked with him. The man who is now preparing to file for disability benefits. “To me, that’s monumental,” Johnson said.

Lisk had plenty to say about Ostrander and how he has helped. “If I have any trouble, I go through him and things get taken care of real fast,” Lisk said.