Olmsted County and the City of Rochester have been and are continuing to work collaboratively, using best practices to address housing needs and homelessness in the community. In recent years the city and the county have invested funds to provide emergency shelter and long-term housing stability for community members experiencing homelessness. In addition, the partnership, which includes community partners, has more plans underway to maintain and improve services and systems to support residents.
The county’s health, housing, and human services division is the lead agency to comprehensively address the needs of those experiencing homelessness. This includes programs and services that support long-term housing stability for individuals and families, improving the supply of and access to permanent, affordable housing, and partnering with vital community organizations. Since 2019, the county has taken significant steps, in all areas, to improve the ability to best serve community members.
Dave Dunn, Olmsted County Housing Director, describes some of the changes to staffing in this way, “Using a person-centered design we created a housing stability team with six staff in February 2020. This team has helped find permanent housing for more than 150 people since its inception. Then, in July 2020, the county also created the Diversity, Equity, and Community Outreach team that includes four social workers. They work alongside law enforcement and help to address mental health concerns during response calls. This includes how 911 calls are responded to and ensuring law enforcement can connect individuals to resources, including housing.”
The county has also improved the supply of and access to permanent housing through innovative programs like the Master Leasing program. This program allows individuals who have poor rental or credit history to rent from the county as their landlord and build credit history. Olmsted County created more than 100 new rental assistance units for its most vulnerable residents.
Partnerships are also essential to this work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, both the city and county took action to protect the health and safety of those experiencing homelessness and the general community.
In late 2019 the county partnered with Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota to open the Rochester Community Warming Center. During the COVID pandemic, the warming center remained open beyond winter. It has since been expanded to accommodate more people. The warming center served 455 unduplicated individuals during 2020 and averaged 900 shelter nights per month.
The warming center will continue to operate year-round with a new partnership that includes a county social worker present during evening intake. That individual will begin finding more stable housing as early as possible when a person seeks shelter.
Dave Dunn shared that the “key to best practices is to focus on finding long-term housing. The goal of shelters, by contrast, is to connect people to housing as quickly as possible, making the experience rare, brief, and one time.”
The City of Rochester has provided over $875,000 in funds for the operation/renovation of the Day Center currently being operated by The Landing. Since the start of the governor’s Stay-at-Home order, the city has coordinated $475,000 in Emergency Services Program grants through three different rounds of funding for services for people experiencing homelessness. The city also allocated $400,000 of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding toward the operations and construction at Silver Lake Station. The City Community Development Block Grant funds support Silver Lake Station by paying for utilities, which is approximately $500-$700 a month dependent on the weather.
The City maintains public safety, emergency response, and connections to the county and non-profit services. This is why the Day Center was created as an emergency response during the pandemic.
City Administrator Alison Zelms shares, “We are pleased to be working with Olmsted County and community partners to continue to make this a priority and use innovative and effective solutions to best serve some of our most vulnerable residents. As with any collaboration, it requires all partners to be responsive, flexible, and understanding. Especially with a topic like this, the need to stay nimble is paramount.”
Director Dunn agrees, saying that “Many important components work together to prevent and address housing needs. While shelters play a vital role in providing emergency access to housing, we need to have clear outcomes from shelter services, such as meeting basic needs and staying focused on activities that help people meet their housing needs while at the shelter. The county is focused on helping people transition to permanent housing.”
To that end, Olmsted County staff will recommend that about $16.1 million of the $30 million the county received from the federal American Rescue Fund Act (ARPA) be dedicated to housing and services. On Tuesday, August 3, the county board of commissioners is expected to vote on recommendations that include funding a five-year investment in affordable housing to create and preserve more than 1,100 affordable housing units in Olmsted County and a new program to build and purchase affordable homes to help more residents move into homeownership.
Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch noted that “Housing has been and remains a top priority for our board of commissioners, based on the data we have and input from residents about the need. We will continue to address housing in Olmsted County working with the City of Rochester and other partners and using a variety of tools and best practices.”