Hennepin County Minnesota: a Successful Local Effort in Preventing and Ending Family Homelessness

An Interview with Cathy ten Broeke, Director of the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County

USICH: What programs do you have that are targeted to preventing and ending family homelessness in Hennepin County?

Ms. ten Broeke: We have two main programs that we have been implementing for almost 20 years, which together have much in common with the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP):

  1. The Rapid Exit Program. Within 72 hours of when a family enters a shelter, the family sits down with a rapid exit planner to figure out what the family’s situation and needs are and what the barriers are to getting the family into permanent housing.  They are then connected to a community provider that assists the household into housing through a network of landlords those agencies have developed supportive relationships with.
  2. The Family Homelessness Prevention and Assistance Program (FHPAP).  FHPAP is a prevention program which assists families in accessing supports to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.  On average, we spend about $700 in one-time prevention assistance for a family.   When compared to shelter and re-housing costs, FHPAP is very cost-effective.

These programs are working. Before the recession, we had seen a 43% reduction in the number of families in shelter.  Unfortunately, the current economic situation has changed that, but we are still managing to prevent and end homelessness for many families.  We didn’t see any increase in families in our county shelters from 2009-2010, which is remarkable given the high levels of need we have seen.  HPRP funding really helped divert a much larger disaster in family homelessness; it was quite literally a life-saver.

USICH: What have you done to make sure you are targeting your services to those who really need them?

Ms. ten Broeke: We did an evaluation of our prevention program FHPAP.  We found that the families that were being targeted for prevention services had significantly higher incomes than the families that were in shelter.  This was clearly a problem because it indicated that we were not targeting to those most in need and most likely to become homeless.  So we made some new rules and came up with a new tool for providers to use to help target these resources to those who were most likely to become homeless without them.  The tool targets families with lower incomes (less than 30% of the median) as well as those with higher barriers.  It is true that some of these families will still become homeless, even after assistance, but we feel confident that we are preventing more homelessness with this targeting.

There certainly are people in Hennepin County that need ongoing supportive services for an extended period of time, and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of these services, but for most families the needs are short term.  They just need a little help to overcome a crisis whether it is losing a job, their rental unit to foreclosure, a medical bill, etc.  A basic starter package of prevention services is enough of a lift to get many families back on their feet.  More is possible with fewer resources than people may think.

USICH: What advice would you offer others in your position?  What programs work for families?

Ms. ten Broeke: If there is one thing I have learned working with families experiencing homelessness, it is not to waste time.  Homelessness is itself a traumatic event for the entire family, but especially for the kids.  The longer it lasts, the worse the after effects.  Prevention when possible and rapid re-housing as a fall back are what work best.  The program models that really help the entire family in my experience are Prevention, Rapid Re-Housing, Housing First, and Supportive Housing.

It is important to remember that repeated traumas associated with homelessness, a lack of housing stability, frequent moves, stress, and reduced bonding with parents (because of stress on the parents), can actually cause physiological changes in kids.  Poor children who are stably housed are more successful than those with housing instability.  Housing stability, in and of itself, is associated with more positive social, academic, and developmental outcomes.   The school system is an important partner.  Schools can help kids maintain stability in a part of their lives and they can even help us identify kids at-risk of homelessness before they become homeless.  We can also work with parents so that they understand the importance of maintaining interaction and bonding during such a stressful time.

USICH: Who are the important partners that help families in need stay in or find permanent housing solutions?

Ms. ten Broeke: Supportive housing providers, landlords, public schools, non-profit and faith-based groups in addition to the county departments that cover health, child welfare and foster care, public housing, and juvenile justice. But that said, good relationships take time to build.  It isn’t a one shot deal.  You need to get partners to the table, but you also have to work to keep them there.  For example, in Hennepin, landlords have been critical partners in our ability to reliably move people quickly into affordable housing, but landlords need support too.  If they are unable to rely on their tenants for rent, the whole system falls apart.  To prevent this from happening, the county and our non-profit providers have become reliable partners for landlords in addition to landlords being our partner.

USICH: As we look forward to next year and beyond, what is your sense of what the future holds?

Ms. ten Broeke: Overall, I am hopeful as it seems that there is a much greater willingness for public and private groups to work together, and I think that is really important.  There seems to be growing political will to end homelessness--not to just deal with it.  Partners across the board seem to be realizing that ending homelessness isn’t only the right thing to do; it is also the smart and most cost-effective thing to do.  The active participation of the federal government and the formulation of a federal plan to end homelessness have really helped raise morale and offer direction as well.

Watch a Webinar Led by Cathy ten Broeke Focused on Improving Prevention Targeting

Learn More about the Office of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness