Minneapolis/Hennepin County has had a goal since 2017 — to end chronic homelessness.
Since then, this Built for Zero community, which encompasses a large metro area, has housed 667 people from their chronic by-name list. People experiencing chronic homelessness are often among the most vulnerable people in a community. In this case, clients had experienced homelessness for an average of three years. With unwavering commitment, the team has maintained an incredible rate of housing 20 people a month throughout 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We just keep going, and we genuinely believe we can end chronic homelessness.”
In response to Covid-19, the county also stood up a program called Hotels to Housing. This project set out to move the most vulnerable clients, like seniors or people with underlying health conditions, into hotels and out of congregate shelters or unsheltered homelessness, in order to protect against potential spread of the virus among those living in close quarters.
But — as demonstrated by their exceptional outcomes — that was never the end game.
“We just keep going, and we genuinely believe we can end chronic homelessness,” said Danielle Werder, who runs the program as the Principal Planning Analyst in the Office to End Homelessness at Hennepin County Health and Human Services.
As a result, the program has housed 160 people from their hotels since they began tracking housing outcomes in June 2020. And they aren’t done. Their goal is to reduce the number of people on their chronic list by 25% in the first six months of 2021, and then reach a 50% reduction by the end of the year.
Utilizing their quality by-name list
“One of the first critical pieces that fell into place was our data,” Werder explained. While the team had a by-name list of everyone experiencing chronic homelessness, they weren’t using a shared, consistent definition.
“We checked every single person on that list to make sure that they’re chronically homeless, and not just pulled in erroneously,” explained Mark Legler, Principal Planning Analyst for Hennepin County. Once they had reliable and valid data on each client, they were able to fully utilize this quality by-name list to know who to house first. “Having it as a way to prioritize and to track is way more valuable and increases buy-in,” he explained.
The Hotels to Housing program set up a parallel operation on-site to keep the focus on housing the clients sheltering in 300 rooms across two hotels. With their data, the team was able to demonstrate their need for increased staffing capacity to meet the program’s housing goals. Using CARES Act funding, they hired 12 additional case managers — which was “a game changer” according to Werder — and ensured caseloads would be no more than 25.
With 24/7 access to clients in the hotels, long-term support services staff were available on-site to connect with those who had previously not been receiving necessary healthcare services, benefits, and medical housing. “What we’ve found is having those partners at the table has allowed us to engage everybody, but specifically our chronically homeless folks and wrap services around them in a really different way,” said Werder.
Since the hotels are likely to close in the first half of 2021, the plan is to secure permanent housing for everyone in the hotels.
Werder said, “That’s how we’ve approached the hotel piece to make sure that we’re not just sheltering folks and that we’re doing everything we can to connect them to housing while we have them in that space.”
Concentrating on communication and case conferencing
“It’s about getting the collective knowledge and wisdom in the room to try to find solutions.”
“I feel like one of our main accomplishments at this point is just not becoming complacent on our goal of ending chronic homelessness,” Werder said. One of their core teams has met weekly since 2017 to test improvement ideas and implement changes. “Even when we were in the depths of COVID, we were identifying little things we could do that would result in at least a couple of people being housed, and we just kept at it.”
The community now holds two chronic case conferencing meetings, with one focused on those that were “hard to house” on their list, and the other dedicated to Hotels to Housing clients. These teams grew from dedicated relationship-building efforts across the community, coalescing in a truly interdisciplinary team. “We worked out a really consistent way of getting housing providers, case managers, and everybody that needed to be there at the table,” said Werder, adding that it was important their case conferencing practice was “community-owned.”
“It’s about getting the collective knowledge and wisdom in the room to try to find solutions,” Legler said. Utilizing a technique taught at Built for Zero’s Case Conferencing Summit, the team categorized people in different “buckets” to focus on the specific barriers they face to housing. ‘We’re not going to get stuck on people, but we’re also not letting anybody just fall through the cracks,” Legler explained.
“I think the first step is genuinely believing that achieving this goal is possible. When somebody says, ‘I just don’t know how this person is going to be housed,’ we reframe and say, ‘What could we do to create the opportunity that this person needs to leave shelter?’”
— Danielle Werder
In a recent case conferencing meeting, the team was discussing a client on their list who had been experiencing homelessness for twelve years. They felt like they had run out of strategies to secure housing for him. But at this meeting, “…one person said, ‘Let me try one more thing,’” said Legler, “…and he was housed last week.”
Continuing to look for creative solutions, fostering relationships across the community, and “working the problem” has been important. “I think the first step is genuinely believing that achieving this goal is possible,” Werder commented. “When somebody says, ‘I just don’t know how this person is going to be housed,’ we reframe and say, ‘What could we do to create the opportunity that this person needs to leave shelter?’”
Werder wants to take the success and learnings from the Hotels to Housing program to other parts of their work. “I’ve been facilitating those meetings, trying to get people to identify what’s working, what could be replicated, because I want to expand this to the full system.”
“The pandemic is hard, but there’s so many opportunities to get people that are experiencing homelessness long-term into housing right now.”
“The pandemic is hard, but there’s so many opportunities to get people that are experiencing homelessness long-term into housing right now,” Legler said. “We’ve just been trying to be really focused on keeping good information on folks and making sure that we’re utilizing those resources that are becoming available.”
Legler notes that this is a daily, ongoing process — they’re not just analyzing impersonal data to determine whether or not a test case was successful. “It’s instead ‘This isn’t working for “John” right now, so what are we going to do?’” he said. “You see people’s faces every day.”