Looking back at the ten year effort to end homelessness in Hennepin County

By Mike Kaszuba

The goal was nothing short of ambitious:  Homelessness in Hennepin County and Minneapolis would be ended in ten years, and the task would be finished by December of 2016.

Public Record Media, a non-profit based in St. Paul, inspected more than 5,000 e-mails and documents related to Heading Home Hennepin, the 10-year plan that was launched by 70 community leaders in March 2006.

The documents, which cataloged numerous initiatives, show that public and private sector officials were often overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, and wrestled with data that at times left them without an accurate way to count the number of homeless.  The city and county’s multi-layered bureaucracies added to the complexities.  Records reviewed by PRM show that while progress was made, the original goal of ending homelessness remained well out of reach.

The data-related problems were particularly vexing – even as the effort approached the ten year mark.  In an August 2015 e-mail, the head of the county’s Office to End Homelessness asked, “Do we have accurate info on reductions in chronic homelessness?”  A county official replied, “No we don’t have good data.  The only place we get it is from the [point in time counts] and we know it is bad.”

A decade-long effort

Ten years ago, the wording from the original plan for Minnesota’s most populous county and city was direct: “Our vision is that by the year 2016, all people facing homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County will have access to safe, decent, and affordable housing and the resources and supports needed to sustain it.  Our mission is to effectively end homelessness over the next decade.”

The effort to end homelessness in Hennepin County received $30 million in government funding in 2015.  Over the past decade, it encompassed initiatives to end veterans’ homelessness, prevent families from becoming homeless, and assist those getting out of jail from becoming homeless.

A 2015 homeless count by Hennepin County showed that the number of unsheltered individuals – those essentially sleeping on the streets — had dropped by half since 2011, from 300 to roughly 150.  However, shelter use by homeless individuals continued to be robust.  For instance, a count on a single night in October of 2015 – nine years into the effort — still showed that 3,665 people were sleeping in Hennepin County shelters.  In addition, a 2015 pilot project that focused on chronic homelessness (the number of people repeatedly using shelters) revealed a numbing reality:  seventy-nine people had by themselves used shelters on more than 100,000 nights since October 1996.

“We have seen a bit of a spike in folks over 70 using” one shelter wrote to Matthew Ayres, an official with the Office to End Homelessness, in a July, 2015 e-mail. “Particularly troubling are the folks like [one woman] who has spent 1,668 nights in shelter in the past 6 years, and is now 74 years old.”

A 2015 year-end report blamed the failure to end homelessness locally on a variety of factors – the U.S. recession that left the unemployment rate at 7.7 percent in 2009; county housing foreclosures that topped 7,300 in 2008; rental housing declines that reached historic lows in 2013; and even a tornado that hit Minneapolis in 2011.

Bureaucratic challenges

As the county’s plan pushed forward, a series of county-specific projects sprouted to life:  For example, the HOMES court (started in 2014) allowed homeless people arrested for low-level misdemeanors to work with case managers on housing rather than face jail time.

However, in some cases, county, state, and federal programs overlapped.  PRM’s document review revealed examples of the day-to-day bureaucracy that homeless advocates faced as they attempted to achieve their ten-year goal.

In a June, 2015 e-mail, Mikkel Beckmen, the director of the county’s Office to End Homelessness, wrote that he felt the office was “deeply disconnected to state efforts and that we need to find out how to communicate each of our priorities/projects/emerging work.”

The lack of coordination also frustrated his staff.  “It would be nice to have more of a connection with city programs,” wrote Heidi Schmidt Boyd in an August, 2015 e-mail message, after being briefed on a city program for pregnant women and young mothers leaving shelters that emphasized in-home visits.

Documents revealed other examples of bureaucratic confusion.  In a June, 2015 e-mail, the county’s supervisor of Housing and Homeless Initiatives announced upcoming organizational changes, noting that “Housing First and Specialized Choice will be merged into LTH Supportive Housing.”  In another e-mail, a county official talked of the “ABH Leadership Group” and asked “should this group focus on information sharing, being an advisory group or being a work group?”   One e-mail simply read: “Re: ABH-ICD-LTSS-CW-HHI Strategic Planning.”

At one point, a woman looking for a housing for herself and her children was told that she was contacting the wrong department – even though she had sent an e-mail to the Office to End Homelessness.  She was subsequently directed to the non-profit Simpson Housing Services.

Toward the end of 2015, one homeless advocate told Beckmen that outreach workers were quitting in frustration.  “I’m hearing from our street outreach folks that one reason they’re leaving the team is that they are so frustrated that they’re not housing people,” Monica Nilsson wrote.  “A staff [member] named Sam said he housed one person in his several months here and left the team.”

Another homeless advocate said he too was having trouble – he could not figure out how to return money back to the county.  House of Charity “is having a problem returning money to the county.  We currently have about $300,000 in GRH over-payments from clients moving out in the middle of the month,” Marti Maltby, the House of Charity’s program director, wrote in a July, 2015 e-mail.  “Do you have any suggestions for how we can get a remittance notice so we can return the funds?”  A county official noted that he had had the same problem.

Problems with data

In December of 2016, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) wanted homelessness figures from Hennepin County for a data analysis project.  “I am just sending along a friendly reminder about today’s deadline for the data,” wrote the NAEH’s Julie Klein.

Beckmen replied on Dec. 5, 2016 – three weeks before Hennepin County’s 10-year plan was to conclude – and noted that “we are not able to supply data.  We’ve been trying but our local system administrator says that due to years of MN’s HMIS [information system] being poorly operated prior to our switch this year, our HMIS [system] doesn’t currently collect the bulk of the metrics being asked for and our lead ICA doesn’t have any ‘canned’ reports to pull the data we do have.

“We just don’t have the actual data, regardless of format,” he added.  “Sorry about that.”

Homeless advocates blamed faulty data for wide fluctuations in homeless numbers.  “I think the dilemma is that our numbers in past years have been out of line,” Lisa Thornquist, an office researcher, wrote in August of 2015.  “We can’t go back and fix those now.  As you can see, starting in 2012, we had a dramatic decline in the percentage of single adults reported as chronically homeless . . . [some] of the drop is likely because they reported n/a or zero, when that isn’t realistic.”

Bad data also appeared to be causing the opposite problem – too big of a jump in the chronically homeless.  In a July, 2015 summary of a “shelter efficiency meeting,” officials discussed the “unreliable data” regarding chronically homeless individuals.  “This is causing Minnesota-wide data to jump drastically,” according to the summary document.  “Numbers went from 0 % chronically homeless at Higher Ground in 2014 to 100 % chronically homeless in 2015.”

On more than one occasion, officials discussed using technology to help.  Steve Cramer, the president of the Downtown Council, a Minneapolis business group, wrote in a June, 2015 e-mail that the “2025 Ending Street Homelessness Committee has been looking into [a computer] ‘ap’ approach that we can add to the downtown tool kit, but hasn’t gotten traction yet.”  In December of the same year, a homeless advocate noted in an e-mail message that the Hennepin County Medical Center had received a grant for a cell phone application, and debated the possibility of including “real-time shelter availability.”

Three days before last Christmas, a state homeless official was briefed on the possibility of using “geo mapping” that involved “implementing a technology [with i-pads?] that enabled outreach workers to mark electronically where persons were residing outside so you could find them [better] for further engagement.”

Progress made in reducing homelessness

Despite the many obstacles, officials did make some progress, according to data reviewed by PRM.

In June of 2015, a local government official noted that for the first time, fewer than 2,000 people were using shelters since a weekly report had started.  In addition, “multiple stayers” (families coming back to shelters) – which had increased from 23 percent to 42 percent from 2008 to 2014 – had decreased by 21 percent by the end of 2015.

State officials reported similar improvements — claiming in 2015 that Minnesota had seen the first decline in homelessness since 2011, which included the fifth largest decrease in family homelessness among all 50 states.

In Hennepin County, other measures of shelter use also showed small steps of progress, including “coordinated entry”, a program begun in 2015 to provide families with a single “point of entry” into the shelter and housing system.  While 279 families were in Hennepin County shelters on February 4, 2013, 258 were in county shelters on the same day two years later.  Similarly, while 980 individuals were in shelters on February 4, 2013, 881 were in county shelters on the same day two years later.

Homeless advocates also pointed to gains made regarding homeless veterans, whose numbers officials had hoped to eliminate by the end of 2015.  In an August, 2015 letter, program advisor Eric Grumdahl said that 150 veterans who were listed on a statewide homelessness registry had been housed.  Eighty-five percent of those on the statewide registry, he added, were located in either Hennepin or Ramsey County.

Results of SFI program

One Hennepin County program, the Stable Families Initiative (SFI) – which offered alternatives to keep families from repeatedly resorting to shelters – showed a 30 percent drop in the number of families in shelters in 2015, as opposed to the year before.  The SFI program was likewise credited with making possible a 12 percent decrease in the length of shelter stays.

Started in 2014, SFI targeted families who had been regular shelter users, and utilized federal money and state housing vouchers to provide two-year rent subsidies.  A pilot program for young parents was added, and private foundation money was used to support case managers to help families stay in their housing after their subsidies had ended.

The county’s Year Nine project report told the story of Tiffany Sherrod and her daughter, Na’Tyra, who had participated in the program, and who had subsequently moved into an apartment in Minneapolis.  The report noted that Tiffany had once been an “Avenues for Homeless Youth” shelter user. “At this time, four years ago, I wouldn’t know where home was,” she told the report’s author.

“Local interest in the Stable Families Initiative has been spreading and news of some of our work has reached D.C.,” Beckmen wrote in a July, 2015 e-mail.  “I will be briefing US HUD Secretary [Julian] Castro.”

In the world of preventing homelessness, even small signs of success drew praise nationally – along with inquiries about how they had been accomplished, as other communities studied success stories.

In August of 2015, Hanna Azemati of Harvard University’s Kennedy School wrote to Beckmen, stating that she had “learned about the great work that Hennepin County has done” in the area of homeless services.  Two months earlier an editor at the Economist, the influential London-based weekly newspaper, also wrote, seeking details of the county’s progress.  “Can you confirm that the new pilot programme has reduced shelter use by 20%?” the editor asked.

“Yes, roughly half are in Hennepin County,” Beckmen replied, before adding a qualifier. “The Stable Families Initiative has helped, as has an improved economy, etc.”

Frustrating realities

As the county’s effort headed into its final year, the director of the Office to End Homelessness remained optimistic.  “Homelessness can be solved,”  Beckman wrote in an annual report.  “Homelessness in Hennepin County and across America is a tragic outcome of a deep and abiding failure in the housing market, along with a mismatch between earnings and the cost of housing.  [Our] community’s poorest and most vulnerable people compete for scarce housing options,” he added.

For Beckmen the frustrations – and moments of success – were on view almost daily, according to data obtained by PRM.

Maryann Weidt, a senior librarian at the Walker Library in Minneapolis, said in a December, 2015 e-mail to Beckmen that “as I’m sure you know, Walker Library is home to a number of homeless folks.  [There] are issues of sleeping, sometimes drinking, drugs.”

At Minneapolis’ downtown Central Library, the problem was similar:  One June, 2015 estimate stated that the number of homeless and “at-risk of homelessness” individuals coming to the city’s main library was between 200 and 300 a week. To help confront the issue, a $75,000-a-year homeless outreach person for the library was proposed in the summer of 2015.  An advocate said the outreach was necessary to deal with incidents “beyond traditional library services.”

In August of 2015, homeless advocates also discussed “a significant increase” in homeless camps that had sprouted up along the Midtown Greenway, a former railroad corridor-turned-bikeway that cuts across south Minneapolis.  “[It] includes drug dealing and prostitution,” a police official wrote in an e-mail message.  Other e-mails showed how officials tried to stem the growth of homeless camps in other parts of the county.  Gail Dorfman, a former Hennepin County commissioner, reported that a work crew planned to “trim bushes/trees to minimize opportunity for secluded camp sites.”

Looking back

After heading the Office to End Homeless since 2013, Beckmen left to become Hennepin County’s housing coordinator.  His successor – the new head of the Office to End Homelessness – reports to Beckmen.

By e-mail, Beckmen told PRM that it was not a mistake to set a goal of ending homelessness in a decade.  “There’s no traps involved in setting goals that have dates attached to them,” he said.  “I think bringing a sense of urgency to the work is important.”

He compared America’s homeless problem during the past 10 years – because of the country’s deep recession – to the periods in U.S. history that occurred after the Civil War, during the Great Depression and after World War II.

In response to whether government bureaucracy may have hindered progress, Beckmen added: “The public sector can be undynamic and process focused (there are reasons for this) so it helped to have a community-driven structure, with regular monthly meetings of the shelters and providers, faith and business community.”  He also downplayed whether officials had underestimated the complexities – including mental health issues – related to homelessness.  “We are all cracked vessels with issues,” said Beckmen. “The big issue is that when you combine deep poverty with personal vulnerabilities in a failed housing market you get homelessness.”

Despite the successes, county and city officials often lamented their inability to make more progress.  In a pair of e-mails from August of 2015, Thornquist suggested that the office’s upcoming annual report state that “as the ten year plan winds down” officials remain convinced that “homelessness can be solved.”  But she also added the same day: ““The trend [of long-term homelessness] doesn’t [vary] much over the past decade.  We basically have 1500 people in and out of our contracted shelters who stay quite awhile.  They are unlikely the same people, we just have a large number who get stuck for a time.”

New statistics released in late December – during the last days of the county’s 10-year plan – again showed what homeless advocates were up against:  Eighty-three percent of all homeless adults in Hennepin County reported mental illness; 35 percent of women in shelters were there because of domestic violence; and 63 percent of the men in shelters had at some point been in jail.

When officials in Utah claimed to have achieved a 91 percent reduction in homelessness, Target Corporation official Anu Gupta wrote in a December, 2016 e-mail that “I wish we could do the same for Minnesota.  That would be tremendous.  How does one go about something like this?”

Beckmen, frustrated by Utah’s claim, wrote in his own e-mail that “I often get forwarded articles about Utah [and] their housing first initiative and usually with a ‘Why can’t we do this’ question.  My answer is we have, and we are,” he said.