With encampments reappearing as soon as they're swept, debate flares over whether there's enough space in emergency shelters. The answer is complicated.
More than 7,000 times last year, homeless people who turned to Hennepin County's emergency shelter hotline for help were turned away. The most common reason: All the beds were booked.
According to a Star Tribune analysis of data from the Adult Shelter Connect hotline, three homeless people on average were turned away daily in 2021, while three times that number — nearly 10 — were turned away daily in 2022.
In the first half of this year, turnaways have averaged more than four a day. But demand for shelter beds has been highest as the weather turned colder from September through December, when daily turnaways ranged on average from 15 to 19.
When clearing encampments, city officials often cite open shelter beds as proof there are alternatives homeless people aren't using; many people living on the street don't want to use shelters for various reasons. At the same time, those staying in encampments and their advocates have reported being turned away for lack of room.
The data doesn't fully reconcile these conflicting experiences, but both could be right depending on the time and day. Though county statistics show there sometimes aren't enough beds for those who try to reserve them, a place usually can be found for those who are persistent and know how to use the county's hotline. But not everyone does.
The notion that Hennepin County's shelter providers don't have enough space to meet demand is what most concerns David Hewitt, the county's housing stability director.
"One person outside is one too many," he said. "The idea that somebody slept outside who wanted shelter, but they didn't call because they thought there wouldn't be any, is my biggest fear."
Emergency shelter beds can be reserved on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 a.m. and usually are fully taken by mid-afternoon. At that point, people who call Adult Shelter Connect are told all beds have been assigned but that they can call back later in the evening to claim any that are freed up by no-shows.
"We can't always promise that they are going to be able to secure a bed, and if they've got any other avenues for safe places to stay, they should redouble their efforts there," said Steve Horsfield of Simpson Housing Services, which runs the hotline.
"Very specifically, they're given the instruction that when the phones reopen at 7 p.m., that's when we have a new set of beds that become available ... and they should call back."
But only 1 out of 7 call back, according to the data, and there is almost always room to accommodate them. The reasons why most people don't check back are varied: their cellphones might have died, they may have found someone to couch-surf with, maybe they went to St. Paul's shelters or they simply became discouraged. Or they set up a tent at an encampment.
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