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Crow Wing County to hire 2 to focus on housing needs

The social worker position set to be added to the staff will be a housing resource specialist and the case aide will manage administration of the programming and provide monitoring of housing supports. Beyond seeking to address needs of county residents, the positions are also aimed at seeking and advocating for ways to build housing capacity in the county.

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Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service

After sheltering hundreds of homeless individuals and families for almost 13,000 collective nights during the pandemic, Crow Wing County is set to expand its efforts to address area housing issues.

The county board Tuesday, July 27, agreed 4-1 to approve the addition of one social worker and one case aide within Crow Wing County Community Services. Salaries for these positions will be fully funded by a grant awarded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services through the Community Living Infrastructure Grant Program.

The program provides counties and tribal governments the opportunity to develop more direct involvement programming surrounding housing. Crow Wing County received $341,715 for fiscal years 2022-23. The social worker position set to be added to the staff will be a housing resource specialist and the case aide will manage administration of the programming and provide monitoring of housing supports. Beyond seeking to address needs of county residents, the positions are also aimed at seeking and advocating for ways to build housing capacity in the county.

Revealing a need

Community Services Director Kara Terry said Tuesday seeking the grant funding and bolstering the department’s resources to address housing issues is a reflection of unmet needs revealed through employees’ work on the emergency sheltering program in 2020 and earlier this year. During the previous week’s committee of the whole meeting, adult services supervisor Nathan Bertram shared statistics and takeaways from the program, most notably the sometimes surprising demographics of those being served.

“(It) included a single parent with a couple of kiddos that he wanted to keep in the school district and still work full time, and so assisting him in finding housing, as well as a number of veterans, disabled folks receiving Social Security, and those who were over 55,” Terry said. “That was kind of surprising to us. We have the typical homeless person image in our minds and so to have all of the different populations to serve … we discovered was more of an issue than we believed it to be at the time.”

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Community Services Director Kara Terry speaks during the July 20 committee of the whole meeting about the impact of the COVID-19 sheltering program. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Using about $821,000 in grant funding to provide shelter during the COVID-19 state of emergency between April 20, 2020, and June 7, 2021, the sheltering program served 386 people — some for more than one stint, resulting in 263 unduplicated households — for an average of 33 days of shelter. The county primarily used four hotels in Brainerd and Baxter as its shelter locations.

“COVID-19, as we’re all aware, there’s lots of grant dollars, and one of the focuses on that was the homeless population — the thought being that those individuals are very transient, they tend to move around a lot, and finding a stable place for them to be during that time would reduce COVID spread,” Bertram said July 20. “As well as that group tends to be underserved medically and lack Medical Assistance. So we believed there was a need in our community.”

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Behind the program

Bertram said before the pandemic, the department’s intake data showed 16-20% of those in need of social services from 2017 onward reported they were homeless. The federal government’s annual count of homeless individuals indicates on any given night in Crow Wing County, there are at least 20 people without shelter. The actual figure is likely higher, Bertram said, due in part to the January timing of the annual survey. This is coupled with the fact those sleeping on others’ couches or otherwise “doubled up” with other households are not included in the federal figures, despite their precarious and potentially unstable housing.

Operating strictly from data collected during the sheltering program, Bertram said the average number of people sheltered over the 14 months was 32 per night. This number could be inflated in part because of circumstances wrought by the coronavirus, added Tami Lueck, adult services manager. Perhaps they felt unsafe staying with family members who failed to take pandemic precautions, or in some cases, those old enough to qualify for assisted living facilities were fearful about moving in because of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on congregate living facilities for seniors.

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Adult services supervisor Nathan Bertram (left) and adult services manager Tami Lueck discuss the county's emergency shelter program operated during the pandemic at the July 20 committee of the whole meeting. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Needless to say, both Lueck and Bertram said their gut instincts tell them homelessness remains a persistent problem larger in scale than data can illustrate. Directing staffing resources and focused case management efforts toward the sheltering program, however, demonstrated the ability to move the needle on homelessness, community services leaders said.

Of those sheltered during the pandemic, 42% ended up in permanent housing — an apartment, group residential housing or adult foster care — and another 8% moved on to other higher levels of care, including substance abuse treatment. One of these housing options was White Oaks Estates in Baxter, which includes an apartment complex specifically designed to house those with severe and persistent mental illness along with high-priority homeless individuals. Five to seven of those served in the sheltering program found a home at White Oaks after it opened in 2020, Lueck said.

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The outcomes weren’t positive or necessarily known for everyone served by the program, however. A total of 12% of those sheltered were asked to leave for a variety of reasons, including contact with law enforcement or failing to meet the expectations of participating with social workers. Another 38% left of their own volition — some to other areas to find family members, but most just moved out one day. This isn’t unexpected or unusual, given many face a number of physical and mental health challenges that ultimately contributed to their homelessness in the first place, leaders noted.

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This graph shows the outcomes for those housed as part of Crow Wing County's COVID-19 emergency shelter program, which offered temporary housing to homeless individuals and families. Graph / Crow Wing County

“There’s lots of different challenges we see with this population,” Lueck said.

Despite the difficult nature of the work, Terry said her department ultimately gained positive takeaways from the sheltering program.

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“I think the most powerful thing for me out of all of this is not only understanding the need, because we know there is one, right?” Terry said July 20. “But also, those 800-some thousand dollars went back into our community and I really think helped to keep those hotels during COVID afloat. Even though there was a lot of work associated with that money, that money came back here and we were able to pump it into our economy during that time.”

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Looking ahead

There remains a great need for low-income and affordable housing, and the new positions approved Tuesday are expected to play roles in expanding and improving the available housing stock. With the expiration of the pandemic-induced statewide eviction moratorium on the horizon, Lueck explained those in social services are bracing for what could be a dramatic uptick in need. That moratorium squeezed an already tight rental housing market in the county, reducing the vacancy rate from its typical 1-2% to about 0.5%, according to figures compiled for a previous board presentation — compounding even further the challenge to find housing.

Commissioner Paul Koering was the lone county board member who opposed the request for board action Tuesday. Koering attributed his opposition to the fact the positions will be funded by a state grant. He said he does not want to see county taxpayers left on the hook if the state decides to pull that support in the future. Terry said it will be clear to applicants the positions are funded for two years, with the possibility they will be eliminated if funding ceases.

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Also Tuesday, the board unanimously approved setting aside $50,000 of the county’s allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act to potentially provide assistance to those who might fall into gaps of the state program intended to help those behind on rent.

A gaps analysis performed by community services alongside community partners in the social services field showed there could be county residents who do not qualify for assistance through RentHelpMN but still need it. The state program also does not provide assistance for utilities. Terry told commissioners during a budget committee meeting earlier this month the money might not be needed, but the department would know more as it works with affected residents during an eviction clinic.

Help with rent or bills

Has COVID-19 made it hard to pay rent and bills?

RentHelpMN helps Minnesotans who have fallen behind on their rent or fear that could happen. For those who have experienced hardship due to the pandemic and need assistance to pay rent or bills, people may be eligible for emergency rental assistance. Visit renthelpmn.org for more information.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

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