The combination of winter weather with its days of cold temperatures and shorter daylight hours, along with the isolation and fear caused by COVID-19, strikes a depressive chord within many. But if you are also homeless and facing these difficulties, the chord strikes a more resounding note.
Homeless encampments have long been used by city residents with no housing, but this year after the George Floyd tragedy they became more populated than ever. Most have been closed by the city, but three major ones remain at the Mall, a site along the Greenway; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Minnehaha Falls Regional Park.
As the days and nights grow colder, and dangers from fires and propane use in the encampments grow stronger, Minneapolis and Hennepin County and the state of Minnesota along with front line workers, nonprofits and community members, put forth effort to help alleviate the struggles.
“When we look at who experiences homelessness, one common factor is an extremely low income,” said David Hewitt, director of the Office to End Homelessness, a joint project started in 2006 by the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County. Hewitt said his area of work is three-fold: rare, which involves eviction prevention; brief, which focuses on crisis response and non-recurring, which has its emphasis on supportive housing. “Supportive housing is the biggest area,” Hewitt observed. He said the goal of shelter outreach is to get people out of unsafe living conditions as quickly as possible.
Heading Home Hennepin
Katie Topinka, housing policy director of the City Planning and Economic Development department (CPED), said the city and county have a formal partnership, Heading Home Hennepin (HHH), to prevent homelessness.
“HHH is a committee that provides some guidance to the Office to End Homelessness,” she explained. “It is co-chaired by Mayor Jacob Frey and Commissioner Angela Conley of District 4.” The committee includes government officials, members of the community, nonprofits, faith and business organizations, homeless and formerly homeless individuals. “We meet three times a year, and it brings us all together to talk through the things we are working on and get guidance to move forward,” Topinka said.
“The city, county and sometimes the state have worked in partnership on homelessness before the pandemic,” she continued, “but COVID-19 and the encampments have made the issue more visible. We have received some federal funding because of the pandemic, and that gives us an opportunity to think strategically and work with community participation.”
Homeward Bound shelter
An example of this is Homeward Bound, a 50-bed shelter developed by the American Indian Community Development Corporation, which opened Dec. 7. “The shelter is culturally designed for Native Americans, who represent a disproportionate number of unsheltered homeless individuals,” Topinka said.
Just as minorities are more affected by the COVID-19 virus, so are they more affected by homelessness.
The 10-year plan to end homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County put out by HHH cites the following possible reasons for greater numbers of minorities facing homelessness. They are underemployed due to racial discrimination in the job market, lack of access to affordable housing due to racial discrimination in the housing market, overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system, and disparity in poverty rates.
Indoor Villages tiny houses
Another of the many projects providing shelter for the homeless is Indoor Villages, a group of 100 tiny houses being administered by Avivo, an organization that assists in finding housing as well as providing other services to those in need.
“It was a new idea, brought from the community,” Topinka said. “It’s more responsive to barriers preventing people from staying in other shelters, a private space for them.” The residents will also receive employment and substance abuse services if needed from Avivo.
“The city’s focus is on trying to create more permanent, affordable housing,” Topinka continued. “It needs to be affordable to low-income individuals, and that takes quite a bit of funding.”
She said the biggest challenge facing the city is that it takes time to develop housing. “Incomes have not increased at the same rate as housing costs. It’s hard to keep up to the level of need we have.”
She said there is also a need to make policy changes to address the level of need such as changing zoning codes. She said that single occupancy housing with a shared kitchen, for example, is currently not allowed. But that kind of housing is cheaper to build and cheaper to rent, and it would create another more affordable housing option.
Rental assistance, eviction moratorium
Topinka said the biggest challenge for the homeless is the weather and COVID-19. “But there are a lot of resources to help people stay as safe as possible,” she added. “Providing better ventilation in existing shelters, and keeping them open 24-7 helps. There’s still a lot more that needs to be done, but I’m proud of the progress we have made.”
As severe as the combination of the pandemic and homelessness is, 2020 has seen a decrease in families in shelters, according to Hewitt. “I think that is because of the eviction moratorium,” he noted. “It raises the question as to what happens when that moratorium ends.”
He agreed with Topinka that a lot of new projects are going on, and although shelters are only temporary the focus is to get people into housing and removed from the winter elements.
Besides funding for shelters and permanent housing, however, Hennepin County and its partners also have provided a little over $2 million in rental assistance on the private market. “We have rental support for permanent properties scattered across the county,” he said.
In a project initiated two and a half years ago, Hewitt said 1,600 chronically homeless have been moved into their own housing. “Before this move, they had been homeless for three years,” he added.
Hewitt said that in the first week of December, the 100th person of those at risk for medical complications from COVID-19 was placed into permanent housing.
“Between January and October, we moved 1,500 people into housing,” he said.
Street Voices of Change
“We have also invested a lot to improve shelters, working with Street Voices of Change,” Hewitt continued. This is an organization of homeless or formerly homeless groups of individuals who come together to build community and make positive changes in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
“They have a bill of rights and make their voices known on issues of storage, space and culturally specific housing, for example,” Hewitt said. “I think we have to engage and listen to the people who are and have been homeless in designing services and reviewing policy. When building supportive housing, we brought in folks who experienced chronic homelessness, asking them whether they preferred built-in laundry services, being closer to stores or medical facilities.”
Hewitt said it has been a huge challenge to keep people safe during the pandemic, whether staff or homeless individuals.
“There have been so many crises at once, not just homelessness,” he said. “It is a time of a lot of fear that impacts everyone and everything. Hennepin County and Minneapolis are fortunate that we have incredible nonprofits and faith and business communities who have supported us. The community has stepped up.”
“It is not only the pandemic and a lack of affordable housing, but a lack of affordable education, job opportunities and mental health services that all affect the homeless to a greater degree,” said Jose Acuna. Acuna is a supervisor for outreach for YouthLink, an organization in Minneapolis that provides services for homeless youth aged 16 to 24. “We have to provide services in a holistic way.”
He said temporary housing in hotels or shelters helps for a few days, but is not a permanent solution. “There are so many barriers, and for people who are undocumented it is worse. For most of the programs, you need a social security number and if you don’t have it, you can’t get help.”
He said some of the shelters and housing are cookie-cutter developments, and not everyone fits. “If you suffer from a mental illness, you might not fit in with that type of setting. And COVID-19 makes everything worse. There have to be wrap-around services.”
Acuna cited an example. “With transportation, if people have no training, it’s a problem. You can give me an airplane to use for transportation, but how do I pilot it? Where can I put the airplane when I’m not using it? I don’t know how to land the plane. I might take the airplane and crash. I need classes on how to use it and how to maintain it.”
He said the same thing applies to housing. “People have evictions and mental health issues.” He said they need more than just the housing.
Acuna said there have been homeless encampments by the river for many years, but they are now more visual. And they represent community.
“People are very hungry for community, and they have a desire and need to belong,” he said.