This major US county is on the way to ending chronic homelessness

Written by on March 21, 2024

Homeless encampment in the East Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis, MN. (Michael Siluk/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — Karen Staples Gonzalez had been living out of her car with her son from 2015 until 2023, when she was first approached by Hennepin County, Minnesota workers, who began to check in on her and other chronically homeless residents seemingly every day.

Gonzalez said they would come by, sign her up for local services and do housing assessments “right on the spot.” They first met in April; by December, she was placed in housing of her own.

Now, the 63-year-old lives in downtown Minneapolis with her 13-year-old son, right along the Mississippi River, where she always had dreamed of settling.

“I open my eyes and the river’s right there,” Gonzalez told ABC News.

“It was scary at first,” Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t be in my apartment by myself, because it was too quiet. You know, I’m like, ‘Where is everybody at? … I just wish more would get the chance to get housing and have this feeling that I have.”

Hennepin County officials told ABC News that they hope to end chronic homelessness by the end of 2025 by using a “person-centered approach,” described as having a strong foundation of comprehensive data about who is chronically homeless, where they reside, and what their individual challenges are.

Before updating their data collecting standards, Danielle Werder, manager of the county’s Office to End Homelessness, said officials believed that about 900 people on any given day were experiencing chronic homelessness. But by sending case workers onto the streets — checking regularly on homeless residents and getting to know them — Werder’s team found that it was actually only 350 people at a time who were chronically homeless, making the task at hand more manageable.

From there, workers met with the residents where they lived to create a plan for their future. That included overcoming individual barriers to accessing resources, subsequently accessing those resources, and finding the right kind of housing, and housing subsidies, to get residents back on their feet. These subsidies could be regular monthly rental assistance, or a tenant having their rent temporarily paid in full, based on their needs. Ultimately, the goal is to enable tenants to completely support themselves, and stay off the streets.

“We needed places for people to go and people to help them get there,” said Werder. “Having those people help get people into housing was a really, really critical intervention. And the impact has been really huge.”

Hennepin County is the one of more than 100 communities in the “Built for Zero” movement, run by the non-profit organization Community Solutions. Built for Zero is a collective of counties and cities that are improving their data collection to build the tools necessary to understand their local homelessness issues, according to Beth Sandor, the chief program officer for Community Solutions.

Hennepin County joined the effort to reimagine its homelessness data collection strategy in 2018. In the last three years, Hennepin County officials said, the program has helped transition 1,628 people who previously were experiencing chronic homelessness into stable housing, with more than 90% of them remaining housed.

Funding to subsidize the program comes from a number of sources, including government assistance, local non-profits, and corporate and individual contributions.

To Hennepin County, providing housing has been the solution to homelessness.

“We don’t just want to try to house people once they’ve been homeless long-term. We want to have a system that’s able to serve people really well up front and avoid them ever having to have that experience of chronic homelessness,” said Werder.

Since the Built for Zero movement began in 2015, five communities have solved chronic homelessness: Bakersfield city and Kern County in California; Rockford city with Winnebago and Boone counties in Illinois; Lancaster city and county in Pennsylvania; Bergen County in New Jersey; and Abilene, Texas.

Housing officials acknowledge that ending chronic homelessness doesn’t mean that no one in their community will ever be homeless, but rather that instances of homelessness should be rare, brief, and nonrecurring.

Across the country, homelessness has been on the rise since 2016. A December report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that more than 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023 across the country, a 12% increase from 2022.

By learning directly from the people most impacted, Weder said counties can look inward at flaws in their system that need to be addressed: “What system infrastructure pieces exist that are perpetuating chronic homelessness, like what are we doing that’s accidentally making this problem worse?”

“If you can tackle homelessness, then you’re equipped to take on any complex social problem that community is going to face,” said Sandor.

Though many of the cities tackling chronic homelessness through the Built for Zero initiative have populations under one million, some larger counties — including California’s San Diego and Sacramento counties, and Nassau County in New York — are also part of the movement.

For Karen Gonzalez, her apartment’s solitude and silence were unnerving at first — a drastic change, she said, from her life under the judgmental eyes of passersby. But she was grateful to have a place of her own, and the helpful hand-holding of county caseworkers on her path toward stability.

“I started cooking again — and it’s fun to cook,” she said.

Now, she spends her time offering her friends a place to eat, rest or shower, and waits for the day that her unhoused friends get placed in homes of their own.

“Everybody deserves a home,” she said. “There’s a lot of family still at the camp.”

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