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Hennepin County outlines plans for people experiencing homelessness in bitter cold

Hennepin County is opening overnight shelters in response to an increase in unhoused families with children.

MINNEAPOLIS — The subzero temperatures are dangerous, especially for people who don't have permanent housing. 

According to Hennepin County, around 1,600 people are currently using shelters in our community. 

"I believe that homelessness is unacceptable and that we can do something about it," said David Hewitt, the county's Housing Stability Department director.

Hewitt says he believes the most important thing to do is help people find permanent shelter before a winter storm like this arrives.

"It's the work that we've done through the year prior to this point," he said.

For instance, this year the department launched a new team called Homeless for Housing, which has so far placed 362 people into permanent housing.

"About half of them coming directly from the streets into permanent housing," Hewitt said.

Looking back a little further, over the pandemic, the county also worked with nonprofits to open four new shelters and to make existing shelters operate 24/7.

"That's especially important on a day like today, that already 80 percent of our shelters were operating 24/7 so people didn't have to leave," Hewitt said.

Hennepin County is one of only around five communities nationwide with an obligation to provide shelter for families with kids, Hewitt says, and there was a major rise in families needing shelter during the pandemic. Currently of the 1,600 people using shelters countywide, half are families with kids. So although the important work happens before the storm, there is still a need now.

"Right now, we are using overflow spaces as part of that commitment," Hewitt said. "Winter shelters, providing extra capacity through the cold months of the year."

This month, the county opened an overnight drop-in site with the American Indian Community Development Corporation in south Minneapolis. In the coming days, another will open at Rescue Now in Northeast, adding up to a total of 75 beds between the two sites.

Hennepin County libraries are also available as warming locations.

Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Transportation shut down a homeless encampment at Interstate 35W and 31st Street in Minneapolis, citing safety reasons.

"MnDOT has always been consistent that highway right-of-way is not a safe place for people to live, especially during the winter months and dangerously cold temperatures," a spokesperson told KARE 11. "This location had begun to present significant health and safety concerns for people at the encampment and nearby residents, as well as blocking pedestrian access of the sidewalk."

MnDOT says it gave people advance notice they would need to leave and provided information about services and alternative shelter options. The department also offered secure storage options for people's belongings.

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