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Challenges facing homeless population persist

Dakota County's homeless population's need for shelter continues to outpace what is available.

In Hastings, officials surveyed nine people as part of its the annual Point in Time survey — a federally-mandated count of the number of unsheltered people in a community — in late January, up from last year's count of five people. Housing vacancy rates around 2 percent and a lack of shelter space has left some struggling to put a roof over their heads, sometimes for even a night.

"This is happening across the metro and the country," said Madeline Kastler, Dakota County's deputy director of housing and community resources. "The end result is that we see an increase in homelessness because there isn't affordable rental units that people can move into."

A lack of vacancies makes it difficult for those searching for housing, said Amber Hanson, the housing director of Ally Support Services, a housing support organization that contracts with the county. And along with higher priced rents it creates a scenario that prices people out of what is available — while often being too expensive for assistance programs as well, she said.

"It's getting harder and harder to find units and landlords, there's just not that many vacancies to go with that," she said.

In the last two years, the Dakota County Board has invested $1.2 million to improve access to shelters countywide and in housing search resources to try and combat this, Kastler said.

That helped fund a 50-person shelter called the Matrix Emergency Shelter in November 2017, which rotates throughout the county and averages about 43 people per night. About $700,000 also went towards housing search and stability efforts, which allowed the county to attach a case manager to people needing housing, Kastler said.

However, she said that more assistance is needed and pointed to a family shelter that has a waitlist of over 50 families on it.

Countywide statistics from the Point in Time survey won't be available for months, but in recent years it has dropped some. In 2018, the count found 46 unsheltered people countywide, down from 59 in 2017 and 63 in 2016.

"We know we're in a better position than we were in before, but we're still not meeting the need," Kastler said.

Even with those increased resources, in Hastings immediate beds are lacking, Hanson said. Cochran Recovery Services, a Hastings-based shelter for single men, shut down at the end of 2017 and widened the gap of available shelter.

Transportation to and from shelters is often a barrier as well.

That was highlighted during last week's record cold snap and life-threatening temperatures.

In addition to county shelters being open 24 hours, instead of just overnight hours, Hanson helped set up bus rides to more beds being offered by St. Andrew's Church in Mahtomedi. But Hastings unsheltered people elected to find overnight housing in other ways — turning to friends or families to avoid transportation woes, she said.

"There is a steady group of homeless folks in Hastings, it's unique that most ... are not transient at all," Hanson said. "That's why they don't tend to go to shelters, when you leave it, they're in a community they don't know ... Hastings is home to them, even if it's in the woods."

Hanson regularly meets with the homeless population and suggested local rideshare services and increased affordable housing as ways to improve conditions.

State Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, who sits on the housing committee, shadowed Hanson during the Point in Time survey in Hastings and said that most state support would come in the form of increased financing to the county.

"Money can solve a lot of problems, but the key is making sure we're spending money wisely," Jurgens said.

Hastings police interact with the city's homeless population on an almost daily basis, with a focus on assisting them when possible, said Hastings Police Chief Bryan Schafer.

"We're not empowering them to live in a tent," he said. "[But] we know where they're at, we know where to give assistance."

Anyone over 18, connected to Dakota County and in need of a safe place to sleep at night is recommended to contact the Matrix Emergency Shelter until April 2019. The shelter can be reached at 651-319-2153 and the phone is answered from 2 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays and 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekends.

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