Mpls program promises housing for long-term homelessby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Panhandling, public urination, and cursing. People in downtown Minneapolis who act that way upset downtown business owners and residents. Money from the city and other sources is being used to hire outreach workers who offer homeless people on the street a place to live.
Minneapolis — Jeff Langdon's 4-inch by 8-inch cardboard sign is hand lettered with a simple request.
"Homeless. Please help. Thank you."
Langdon is sitting cross-legged in front of a building on Minneapolis' Nicollet Mall. He says he makes enough money panhandling to get by.
Monica Nilsson sits down on the sidewalk near Jeff. Nilsson is the director of outreach for St. Stephen's Services, a venerable Minneapolis nonprofit which supplies a wide range of help for poor people.
Her job is to meet Langdon and others who she thinks may be homeless. Nilsson is empowered to make them a no strings attached offer which she extends to Langdon.
"If I said you can have an apartment, you don't have to be sober, you don't have to be on your meds, we'll house you first, would you choose being out here or would you choose that?"
"I'd actually choose that one," Langdon replies.
Jeff says he has family in Lakeville, Minn. but for whatever reason he is not comfortable or welcome there. Several days after meeting Nilsson he called her back to learn more about the offer.
Offering Langdon an apartment paid for in part by public funds may seem lavish at a time when money is tight, but Monica Nilsson says it is a bargain.
"It's cheaper to house people than to have them sleep outside," she says.
Here is how the numbers shake out. State officials say a one-night shelter stay can cost taxpayers and charities $32. The numbers spiral upward rapidly after that. A night at a Hennepin County detox unit is $192. A night in jail costs $363.
The offer of a $600 per month apartment -- $20 a night -- stacks up pretty well.
Minnesota and Minneapolis taxpayers, a foundation and some private donors have put up money for the effort. There are similar efforts in Duluth and in Ramsey County.
Many of the people in downtown Minneapolis offered help by outreach workers are familiar faces to business owners and police.
"Chronic inebriates make up a large portion of our chronic offender population," says Luther Krueger, a Minneapolis Police First Precinct Crime prevention analyst.
Five arrests or citations earn someone the label of chronic offender, and it is not difficult to become a lawbreaker.
Downtown Minneapolis homeless shelters close at 7 a.m. and hundreds of homeless people are turned out onto the streets for the day. Krueger says some, having spent a fitful night, try find a warm spot in a building where they can nap unless the building owner finds them and calls the police.
"If they don't go willingly and the property owner wants us to remove them our officers have to make an arrest," he says.
People accepting the no-strings-attached offer of an apartment get to decide what is next. Some have jobs or a marginal income from disability payments. Others have fragile mental health or are addicted.
"They may want to find a job, they may want to address their mental illness, or chemical dependency issues, then those services are made available through the provider," says Laura Kadwell, who directs Minnesota's effort to end long-term homelessness.
State officials say Minnesota's seven-year effort (2004 to 2010) to end homelessness for 4,000 people has a cost in the neighborhood of $500 million.
The offer of a place to live made to people on the street in downtown Minneapolis is a small component of the endeavor. Most of the people being helped in the broader effort are families -- parents with children.
Monica Nilsson and her colleagues at St. Stephen's Services have $380,000 for their work. So far, they have helped 10 people find a place a live, including a 76-year-old man whose apartment complex was turned into condominiums.
Outreach workers say he did not want to go to a shelter and decided to pitch a tent and camp. Workers discovered he was eligible for senior housing and found a unit for him. Dozens more who declined the offer of an apartment accepted help from mental health or chemical dependency services.
The outreach efforts in Minneapolis are similar to ones up and running for years in other cities. Some of their results, as measured by the number of homeless people who have found permanent housing, are dramatic.
The challenge, not surprisingly, is sustaining the effort.
The formula for success is well understood, says St. Stephen's Monica Nilsson, a 14-year veteran of human services work,.
"How we're going to end panhandling and other community livability issues are the same old boring things -- access to health care, chemical health, mental health, physical health -- whenever you need it, not at a scheduled time and poverty reduction," she says.
Sustaining that formula is a daunting task as the economy slips into recession and as elected officials face a rising chorus of voices from many sectors seeking help to weather the economic storm.
- Morning Edition, 01/22/2008, 7:25 a.m.