Dakota County Staff Face Daunting Homeless Challenge

From housing assistance to skill building. How are government agencies and local nonprofits taking the fight to homelessness?

Dakota County officials say as many as 1,000 men, women and children may be experiencing homelessness on any given night somewhere within the county.

That could mean sleeping in a car, on a friend's couch, or worse. And officials acknowledge the problem of homelessness is not only growing in Dakota County, but it's far less visible than in a place like downtown Minneapolis.

How does the county combat an issue that has so many contributing factors, including loss of employment; failure to complete basic educational goals; physical, mental, and chemical health issues; and unstable family structures?

As part of the county's new Heading Home Dakota initiative, a 10-year plan to end local homelessness, officials like Dakota County Housing Manager Eric Grumdahl are trying to tackle the county's homelessness rate from all angles. Their work is ambitious, but the need is daunting.

"Doing our part to address the housing needs of people in Dakota County is critical," said Grumdahl.

More Affordable Housing Needed

In recent years, Dakota County’s Supportive Housing Unit typically receives 6,000 or more referrals and calls for assistance from people experiencing homelessness or housing instability on an annual basis, according to data provided in the county's Heading Home plan.

Many of those calls for help are eventually answered by the Dakota County Development Agency.

Sara Swenson, the assistant director of administration at the agency, works to provide low-income families an affordable and safe residence through the county's Scattered Site Public Housing program and the Family Townhome program.

Households in the Scattered Site program can rent units throughout the county for 30 percent of their income. Housing provided in one of the county’s family townhome complexes is offered at half the market rate or at least less than market rate.

The tight rental market has complicated the CDA's work, however.

With a rental vacancy rate in the county below 3 percent, pressure on rent prices is higher than ever. Market rate rent for a two-bedroom unit averages about $900, said Swenson.

The townhome program has 552 units with another 46 on the way in Eagan, but the waiting list is 1,600 households long. Not to be outdone, the waiting list for scattered site housing, which predominantly serves families with children, is roughly 3,300 households long.

To meet growing affordable housing needs, however, Dakota County may need to add as many as 7,611 new units across the county in the next eight years, according to Metropolitan Council projections cited in the county's Heading Home plan.

In line with the Met Council targets, the county has made the development of new affordable housing a priority as part of its multi-faceted approach in the Heading Home plan.

Long term, county staff face two primary challenges, according to Grumdahl. The first is maintaining the affordability of people’s homes, whether through enhancing the person’s earning power or through finding additional financial support.

The second is simply finding vacant housing with which to work. Grumdahl described the current vacancy rate as a “10-year low.” The Heading Home program has promised to tackle these issues despite the challenges of the economy and the complexity of homelessness.

You Can Bring a 'Horse' to Water ...

Affordable housing and Dakota County CDA programs aren't the answer for everyone, however.

For those already out of a home, case management can connect people to other services including health care referrals, addiction treatment and placement in any one of the county’s specialized shelters. A 24/7 crisis response team is also available when someone is in immediate danger to themselves or others.

Housing is just one facet of the solution, according to Kenny Johnson, the coordinator of the Cochran House homeless shelter in Hastings.

A former drug addict and homeless person, Johnson holds no illusions when it comes to being homeless.

Homeless people cannot be pushed out the door of the homeless shelter into an apartment, Johnson said. Many of them need time to get clean, learn how to be responsible, hold down a job and earn money. Johnson believes they need structure and a long-term approach to succeed—otherwise they may end up back at another shelter.

“It’s got to be baby steps,” Johnson said. “Even though we want these people live independently, some people need structure, a step-by-step graduation into the point where they can be independent.”

Johnson has started developing programs with those aims at the Cochran House, including morning meetings where residents talk about their daily goals—which range from getting to a doctor's appointment to finding a job.

"You can take a dog to water but can't make him drink," Johnson said. "You can put a person in a home, but you can’t make him keep it."

Editor's Note: Homelessness rates in Dakota County and other suburban communities in Minnesota have risen substantially in the last five years. This letter to the editor is part of a Patch series exploring that trend. Click on the links below to read other articles on the topic.

  • Aug. 13
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