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Hennepin County has the largest homelessness prevention and housing stability effort in Minnesota, working to shelter thousands of people each year and hopefully get them into permanent housing.

The county has nearly 200 people working on homelessness and housing stability and will spend nearly $200 million in local, state and federal dollars in 2024. A new 0.25% sales tax approved by the Legislature will raise about $29 million annually for rental assistance and affordable housing.

The county partners with cities and local nonprofits to provide shelter and other services to residents experiencing homelessness or housing instability. Hennepin County leaders say they are one of the last jurisdictions in the U.S. that promises to shelter all families with children so no child sleeps outside.

"We believe that homelessness is unacceptable and that government can do something about it," said David Hewitt, human services director for housing stability. "This crisis is very visible. The successes are, almost by nature, invisible because it is people, in their homes, doing OK."

The county's work has grown considerably since the coronavirus pandemic, when a combination of financial, health and social factors pushed many residents to the edge or over it.

Last year, 9,000 people found shelter in the 13 year-round facilities the county funds. Other shelters come online in winter months when demand for space spikes.

In 2023, county workers helped 2,171 people who were homeless transition into permanent housing. That was a 18% increase over 2022 and a 57% jump since 2021.

County leaders focus on making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring; a popular approach with state and local governments across the U.S. Supplementing that work are ongoing investments to create and preserve affordable housing.

Here's the focus of each of those efforts:

Rare: With a staff of 31 and budget of $19 million, the aim of this team is to help residents keep the housing they have already. That means providing emergency rental assistance or connecting tenants facing eviction with lawyers for housing court.

Staffers also help residents with unstable housing find temporary solutions so they don't have to go to a shelter.

"We are here to advocate for you," said Brittani Walker, a case management assistant. "A lot of people are scared and don't know where to go."

Brief: This team of 120 with a budget of $46 million works to get people who are living outside, in shelters or in unstable housing into a permanent place to live.

Anyone who interacts with a county social worker at a shelter or an encampment can have their name and contact information entered into a database. A case worker will reach out to get them into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

"We work with people where they're at," said Phyllissha Butler, a supervisor for the youth homeless to housing team. She added that unhoused clients almost always face multiple challenges that contributed to why they lost their homes including mental health problems, substance abuse and financial challenges.

"We are looking to break down any barriers they have to housing," she said.

Nonrecurring: A team of 18 with a budget of $103 million is focused on keeping people who have struggled with homelessness in permanent housing.

Clients receive housing aid, which in February helped 2,300 households pay rent, and have a case worker who helps them avoid the problems that contributed to their housing instability.

Nathan Nyren, a housing support program manager, said one of the biggest challenges is finding landlords who will rent to people who were homeless or have a criminal record.

The housing aid is typically considered an ongoing income supplement, but sometimes the help is time limited. Nyren says providing rental assistance is cheaper than having homeless residents in shelters or ending up in the emergency room or jail.

"This program is saving taxpayers money," he said. "Our goal is always to try to get people to be as independent as they can."

Affordable housing: Hennepin County will invest about $23 million this year in affordable housing with plans to create about 1,000 new units. The staff of 27 works to maintain existing affordable housing and bring new units online through forgivable loans and other incentives for providers.

There are also grants and assistance to help lower-income residents become homeowners.

Hennepin County has a shortfall of more than 34,000 deeply affordable units for low-income residents. Nearly half of the county's tenants are cost-burdened by rent, according to the Minnesota Housing Partnership.