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On a brisk morning this week, more than a dozen men and women formed a human chain that stretched from a delivery truck parked along a busy sidewalk, up two flights of stairs and into the cavernous gym of Elim Church in northeast Minneapolis.

Within minutes, everyone was passing heavy mattresses up the chain, filling the gym with enough makeshift beds for 40 homeless adults seeking refuge from the cold. "Everyone grab a mat, we want this ready by Valentine's Day," yelled Monica Nilsson, an organizer of the new shelter.

The frenetic morning scene reflects the fresh sense of urgency surrounding public and private sector efforts to combat Minnesota's growing plight of homelessness.

An ambitious new initiative designed to expand the state's emergency supply of shelter beds for the homeless is already having a major impact. Nearly two dozen organizations, including churches, nonprofits, counties and tribal agencies, have received $2.7 million in grants since Gov. Tim Walz launched the effort just six weeks ago. Over the next month, these organizations will open about 350 emergency shelter beds in cities and towns across the state — from northeast Minneapolis to International Falls in far northern Minnesota — providing hundreds of people with much-needed relief from the cold and longer-term assistance in finding more stable housing.

The sudden expansion of shelter for the homeless stems from an unusual collaboration of corporate and philanthropic organizations, which came together at Walz's urging late last year to create a first-of-its-kind emergency fund, the Minnesota Homeless Fund. The fund is designed to respond rapidly to the state's affordable housing crisis and rising rate of homelessness. In an effort to open shelter beds quickly, the 19 private and public investors in the new fund agreed to fast-track dozens of promising proposals without putting them through months of process and red tape. Projects that normally would have taken a year or more to be approved were financed within weeks, enabling organizations to start buying supplies, renovating buildings and hiring staff.

"The speed and sense of urgency surrounding this effort is like nothing I have ever seen," said Margaret King, a consultant to the new fund. "What is particularly unusual is how willing our private investment partners were to suspend their regular processes — on faith that this is a really important thing to do."

Growing housing crisis

The public-private sector initiative comes as local agencies struggle to respond more forcefully to the state's deepening shortage of affordable housing, and the surging population of homeless adults and families. Nearly 8,000 Minnesotans experienced homelessness in 2019, up 10% from the previous year and the highest level in five years, according to an annual count by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The number of Minnesotans who are unsheltered — that is, sleeping outside and not in emergency shelters — rose an alarming 47% last year to 1,653 people statewide, the HUD survey found.

Nonprofit leaders point to a range of causes, including a shortage of affordable housing, rising rents, a protracted opioid epidemic and inadequate access to mental health services. People reporting severe mental illnesses are among the fastest-growing segments of Minnesota's homeless population. Their numbers have swelled 37% since 2016 to nearly 1,600 people statewide, according to the annual HUD survey.

The crisis became more visible in fall and winter 2018, when several hundred people erected tents along a highway soundwall in south Minneapolis. It took a massive outreach effort by a coalition of city, county and American Indian agencies to transition people to a temporary shelter nearby. Then, on Christmas Day, public attention once again turned to the homeless, when a fire tore through the Francis Drake Hotel in downtown Minneapolis — displacing more than 200 people and destroying Hennepin County's only overflow shelter for homeless families.

"The urgency is that we're seeing the trendline for unsheltered start to go vertical in Minnesota, and that's really concerning," King said. "Shelter is not the answer, but it does keep people alive."

Congregants of Elim Church are not strangers to the affordable housing crisis. Every Sunday morning for the past 13 years, the church has provided a free breakfast, clothing, showers, haircuts and Bible study to 150 to 200 people through its homeless outreach ministry. More than a year ago, the church's leaders began exploring the possibility of opening a shelter, which would serve a large area of north and northeast Minneapolis that currently lacks adult shelter beds.

'The need is everywhere'

On Jan. 13, less than a week after receiving $250,000 in state funding to open a temporary shelter, Elim Church got a tragic reminder of the dire need: Michael Borgan, a homeless father of two sons who had frequented the church's homeless ministry for years, froze to death after spending the night outside. The shelter will be named after Borgan in his honor.

Last year, 103 Minnesotans died while living on the streets, according to estimates by advocacy groups.

"Michael's death brought us to our knees," said Paul Stephen Olson, pastor of Elim Church. "It was a moment that woke us up and showed us that we were on the right track, and what we are doing will save lives."

The new homeless fund was designed to be nimble and to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that often accompanies the grant-making process.

All told, the fund's advisory committee reviewed 79 proposals in just two weeks, prioritizing shelter projects that were in areas with high rates of homelessness and those that could launch within 30 days of getting financed. About 240 of the new beds will be in the Twin Cities metro area, while the others are spread out in greater Minnesota communities such as Grand Rapids, Virginia, Bemidji and the White Earth Reservation.

The active presence of private investors in the new fund helped, say organizers, because they were able to identify projects of their own and issue checks quickly. The fund has received $1 million each from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and the Pohlad Family Foundation, plus contributions from a half-dozen corporate foundations.

Not all the new projects are shelters. In northern Minnesota, a small nonprofit called Servants of Shelter that operates a three-bedroom home for the homeless in International Falls received $25,000 to issue five-day hotel vouchers for the homeless and to help pay for security deposits on rental units. The city of 6,000 across from the U.S.-Canada border has been hard hit by methamphetamine abuse, rising rents and a dwindling supply of living-wage jobs, said Cynthia Warren, a case manager for Servants of Shelter.

"The homeless aren't as visible here as they are in the Twin Cities," Warren said. "We don't have people camped out on the streets. But they are living in their cars or in fishing houses and hunting shacks, and they don't have heat or running water."

She added, "The need is everywhere."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres