Crow Wing residents in need of housing could soon have the guidance of a specialist in county government to help them find a place to call home.
County commissioners Tuesday, June 8, voted 4-1 to accept a grant awarded by the state to fund a team of community services employees to focus on meeting the housing needs of people who are homeless, unstably housed or who want to relocate from hospitals, treatment centers, jail, group homes or other facilities.
Tami Lueck, Crow Wing County adult services supervisor, said assisting with housing isn’t new for the county’s social workers, but dedicating full-time staff to the issue will represent a fresh approach to meeting the housing needs of individuals and the community as a whole. Lueck told the county board a temporary grant-funded program established to provide protective sheltering for those experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic offered a closer look at the extent of the problem.
“Our funding is set to expire at the end of June and we have transitioned staff back to their primary duties,” Lueck wrote in a summary presented to the board. “Crow Wing County was aware of the homeless population prior to COVID as you can see from the data, however with our work in this area over the last year we are much more aware of the scope of the actual need.”
Rural northern Minnesota is devoid of many of the conventional representations of homelessness expected in urban environments — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It more often looks like what’s called “doubling up” — people living with a friend or family member while not on a lease or paying rent. This is particularly true in the winter months, when living in one’s car or camping outside is more difficult due to weather conditions.
“I feel really good that 50% of the individuals either went on to housing or maybe got treatment."
— Tami Lueck
According to Lueck’s statistics, 295 adults and children received shelter through the program in 2020 — a larger number of homeless individuals with which community services had contact than any of the three previous years. In 2019, the number of people who offered homelessness as their primary reason for requiring county services was 190. That figure was 240 in 2018 and 161 in 2017.
Of those provided protective sheltering in 2020, 133 reported no income at all, while 91 received some income, either from part-time employment, Social Security or veterans benefits. The remaining 36 people were children, according to the county.
During an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, Lueck said several of these individuals reported a job loss directly tied to the pandemic, while others reported difficulty finding work due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy. Coronavirus-related health concerns were also a factor for some, she said, either making it difficult to share housing with others or, for those over age 55, raising anxiety about the potential outcomes of moving into assisted living.
With 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 .5%, according to figures compiled for the board presentation — compounding even further the challenge to find housing.
Still, of the 295 adults and children temporarily sheltered in 2020 — all of whom were originally residents of Crow Wing County — Lueck said 40% ended up permanently housed. Another 10% were placed in a chemical dependency treatment center or a mental health hospital.
“I feel really good that 50% of the individuals either went on to housing or maybe got treatment,” Lueck said after the meeting. “And even the 10% that got treatment … it sometimes takes some time to get people to accept those things, and sometimes they have to wait to even get into treatment … and so (the shelter) was having a safe place in between.”
Lueck said that success is thanks in part to the intensive case management provided by social workers, able to pull together a variety of resources and tap a number of community partners to land on what might work best for the individual or family in question.
“They really worked at trying to identify and assess the need, provide some short-term case management to individuals,” Lueck said. “ … Whether it was off to Lutheran Social Service for rent and deposit, or was it housing applications and looking where openings were in our community, or was it supportive housing.”
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The Community Living Infrastructure Grant Program offered by the Minnesota Department of Human Services provides counties and tribal governments the opportunity to develop more direct involvement programming surrounding housing, which Lueck said means the county can continue to build on this work.
A grant of $341,715 was awarded for fiscal years 2022-23. With these dollars, the county plans to cover the costs of two separate full-time positions: a housing resource specialist and an employee to manage the administration and provide monitoring of housing supports. This includes seeking ways to build housing capacity in the county.
Commissioners gave approval for Community Services Director Kara Terry to sign the grant agreement with the state in a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Paul Koering voted against it.
Following Tuesday’s vote, Koering explained he voted against the grant because he’s concerned about the potential future impact on the property tax levy, should the state withdraw its funding. In response to a question from Chairman Steve Barrows, Lueck addressed this concern during the meeting, noting none of the counties or tribes awarded grant funding thus far for this purpose had funds taken away. This specific program is fairly new, however, first doling out funds appropriated by the 2017 Minnesota Legislature.
Koering said he’s also concerned about the substance of the program itself and questioned whether a need existed.
“I wasn’t happy about, you know, when we were helping people down at that motel or several motels, there was a lot of problems. There was a lot of drugs,” Koering said. “There was a lot of problems. I just don’t want to get into that business. … I guess I don’t know that there’s that big a problem. At least I haven’t been made aware of a huge homeless population.”
After the meeting Tuesday, Lueck acknowledged some people were asked to leave the shelter program for not following through with staff or because their behavior led to being kicked out by the hotel or arrested by law enforcement — 39 of the 295 people. But, she noted, these people often end up relying on some kind of taxpayer-funded support in one way or another.
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