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More than 7,000 times last year, homeless people who turned to Hennepin County's emergency shelter hotline for help were turned away. The most common reason: All the beds were booked.

According to a Star Tribune analysis of data from the Adult Shelter Connect hotline, there was an average of six incidents of homeless people being turned away daily in 2021, while there were three times that number of turnaways — nearly 19 — in 2022.

In the first half of this year, turnaways have averaged more than eight a day. But demand for shelter beds has been highest as the weather turned colder from September through December, when daily turnaways ranged on average from 30 to 40.

Shelters in Hennepin County provided 300,000 nights indoors for homeless people last year. When clearing encampments, city officials often cite open shelter beds as proof there are alternatives homeless people aren't using; many people living on the street don't want to use shelters for various reasons.

At the same time, those staying in encampments and their advocates have reported being turned away for lack of room.

The data doesn't fully reconcile these conflicting experiences, but both could be right depending on the time and day. Though county statistics show there sometimes aren't enough beds for those who try to reserve them, a place usually can be found for those who are persistent and know how to use the county's hotline. But not everyone does.

The notion that Hennepin County's shelter providers don't have enough space to meet demand is what most concerns David Hewitt, the county's housing stability director.

"One person outside is one too many," he said. "The idea that somebody slept outside who wanted shelter, but they didn't call because they thought there wouldn't be any, is my biggest fear."

Emergency shelter beds can be reserved on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 a.m. and usually are fully taken by mid-afternoon. At that point, people who call Adult Shelter Connect are told all beds have been assigned but that they can call back later in the evening to claim any that are freed up by no-shows.

"We can't always promise that they are going to be able to secure a bed, and if they've got any other avenues for safe places to stay, they should redouble their efforts there," said Steve Horsfield of Simpson Housing Services, which runs the hotline.

"Very specifically, they're given the instruction that when the phones reopen at 7 p.m., that's when we have a new set of beds that become available ... and they should call back."

But only 1 out of 7 call back, according to the data, and there is almost always room to accommodate them. The reasons why most people don't check back are varied: their cellphones might have died, they may have found someone to couch-surf with, maybe they went to St. Paul's shelters or they simply became discouraged. Or they set up a tent at an encampment.

Before the hotline was opened in 2016, people had to line up outside shelters for hours in hopes of claiming a bed for the night. The hotline makes that unnecessary, and it offers insights "about what should we be doing with our resources, because we do know some things about how many folks are getting turned away," Horsfield said.

There is high demand, but homelessness won't be defeated until affordable housing is available for those who use emergency shelters like a long-term home, he said.

In the meantime, he said, "Our system is improving in terms of quality and diversity over time here, and I think we need to continue on that track."

Camps and capacity

As unsheltered homelessness becomes more visible across Minneapolis, especially in the city's south-central area, neighbors and activists are scrutinizing the city's response. Officials say encampments shouldn't be tolerated and are prohibited by city statute, but critics say that tearing down camps just forces people to move around before they set up new camps, often in the same places.

This spring, city workers closed a camp in the Whittier neighborhood where 3rd Avenue runs along the Interstate 35W sound wall. City workers had given the camp notice, following their new operational guide for encampment response. But while some occupants had packed and moved, many others hadn't and said they had nowhere to go.

As city workers and contractors methodically stripped away vacant tents and piled people's belongings into garbage trucks, some camp occupants on the far end hurriedly injected drugs as others warned that the police had arrived as well.

Mohamed Abdi, 27, often visited the Whittier camp to bring food to friends who had been kicked out of other places for using opioids and methamphetamine. They thought most shelters wouldn't accept them, he said, "because they literally use a lot. There's a lot of resources, but do they know that?"

Rich Strong, who said he occasionally stayed with friends in the camp, expected overdoses to follow the eviction. "Anytime anything emotional like this happens, people then overdo [drugs]," he said.

One day last month Bailey Foster stood, tent poles sticking out of her backpack, across the street from the encampment where 31st Street dips under I-35. The Minnesota Department of Transportation had stacked concrete barricades under the highway bridge to deter campers, but people just used them as privacy partitions. Camps there are regularly swept, though never permanently.

Foster, who was homeless, said she didn't have a phone to call Adult Shelter Connect.

"A lot of people end up getting out of this situation at some point," she said, "but sometimes there are a lot of repetitive cycles that go on before we get into the swing of things, where we really figure out what we're doing wrong and how to fix it."

Often people who choose to stay in encampments complain about overcrowding in shelters, the many rules of conduct and bad experiences with theft or other residents crossing personal boundaries.

Some people are banned from emergency shelters at any given time because they've harmed another guest — in turn making the victim reluctant to seek shelter again.

While addiction isn't something that shelter operators hold against someone seeking a bed, Hewitt said, drug use can lead to other behaviors that get people suspended.

Another factor that weighs on shelter capacity is the significant population of people who stay at emergency shelters for longer periods of time than intended. According to Hennepin County, 15% of all shelter guests stay for a year or longer. In an extreme example, county officials recently celebrated finding housing for a person who had been in shelter for eight years.

"This group uses a lot of capacity that could have served many, many short-term users," said county spokeswoman Maria Baca. "This is one of the reasons this group is a priority for permanent housing under our efforts to end chronic homelessness."

Any adult in Hennepin County experiencing homelessness may call 612-204-8200 for placement with the county's network of nonprofit shelter providers.

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly calculated the average number of daily turnaways.