Recent Migrants Fill a Third of Hennepin County Homeless Shelter System


OCTOBER 30, 2023 — 8:00AM

After a month in New York's overcrowded homeless shelters, two Ecuadorian migrants and their baby recently received a free plane ticket to Minneapolis.

They took a cab to a Bloomington hotel that Hennepin County leases as an overflow family shelter, where many newly arrived Ecuadorians stay. But the couple found a sign in Spanish on the door: "We are not accepting new families at this time."

The 18-year-olds sat on the curb that afternoon as their baby slept on a suitcase, waiting for a room to open in the full hotel.

One-third of the 452 families in homeless shelters run by Hennepin County are newcomers to the United States, as a surge of migrants cross the southern border. Others are being turned away as Hennepin County's system grows so overwhelmed that it is failing to follow its longstanding policy to shelter every homeless family with children. The number of sheltered families has doubled since this summer to nearly four times the county's regular capacity — the highest in at least a decade.

Homelessness among Minnesotans was already surging after the pandemic-era eviction moratorium and rental assistance ended in late 2022, prompting Hennepin County to put unhoused parents and children into overflow hotels. Then an influx of migrants started contributing to the overflow.

It remains unclear how many migrants come to Minnesota directly versus from cities away from the border, but most are Ecuadorians seeking asylum, waiting for court dates that are months or years away. Now the county is lodging more than 1,500 people in its family shelters while searching daily for new rooms.

Hennepin County is one of a handful of jurisdictions in the nation with a "shelter all" policy, though that does not extend to single adults. It budgeted $9.7 million for family shelter this year. By March, the county approved an additional $17 million to meet the exploding demand in 2023, and it expects to spend $22.5 million next year.

"We have a long way to go to be out of overflow, and I think it's going to take significant time. … I am under no illusion that this challenge is going to abate soon," said David Hewitt, Hennepin County's director of housing stability.

Minnesota's immigration court has 7,779 Ecuadorians with pending cases, up from 344 in 2018. The overwhelming majority of Ecuadorian asylum-seekers are not homeless, but some turn to shelters as their own help networks strain.

The Star Tribune could not determine what happened to the family waiting outside the Bloomington hotel — after a few minutes of conversation, two security officers walked outside and asked journalists to leave.

Months in hotels

Ecuadorian native Jhon Requelme, 29, trekked through the Darien Gap — a treacherous jungle connecting Panama and Colombia — to Arizona with his partner, 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

"It's very difficult in our country and the situation is getting worse," he said.

His cousin in New York discouraged him from settling there, where a law requiring the city to house everyone in need has already cost a reported $1.5 billion as migrants pack shelters and hotels.

An Ecuadorian friend in Minneapolis told Requelme he could come, but said she couldn't house him because so many Ecuadorian arrivals had crowded into her home. One month ago, the friend drove Requelme and his family from the airport to a downtown Minneapolis hotel that Hennepin County is using for overflow shelter after buying it with federal pandemic recovery funds.

"Every floor is full of Ecuadorians," Requelme said.

He was a welder back in Ecuador, an in-demand job in America. But without a work permit, Requelme cannot practice his trade and afford private housing. Asylum-seekers have to wait six months after they file their asylum application to apply for legal permission to work.

Maria, 34, heard about Minnesota from a woman she met crossing the Darien Gap, which hundreds of thousands of migrants traverse to reach America. Like most Ecuadorians interviewed for this article, she declined to give her last name for fear of immigration authorities.

When Maria landed here with her husband and children, her contact from the jungle hosted them for one night before directing Maria to the Bloomington overflow hotel where she had briefly stayed upon her own arrival.

Maria has been living there for four months now.

She and her husband work sporadically — she cleans, he does construction — but Maria wants steady employment "because we would like to leave here."

Hennepin County's usual capacity is 119 rooms at two nonprofit family shelter providers, but now it is renting 265 hotel rooms, too. The majority are at the Bloomington hotel, which the Star Tribune is not naming for security reasons. That facility offers the county a nightly rate of $62 per room and is on track to receive $3.8 million this year. All families sheltered by Hennepin County receive three meals a day.

The county says it intends to keep homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring, but it has no time limits on sheltering families. Unhoused Ecuadorians told the Star Tribune that shelter staff does not talk to them about finding their own housing, and Hewitt confirmed that shelters don't have employees dedicated to working with clients one-on-one.

Now the county is moving to hire 12 social workers focused on helping families find housing.

"It is not our intent that anyone live indefinitely in a homeless shelter," Hewitt said.

One Ecuadorian living in the Bloomington hotel said he goes out every evening to find an apartment for his family of six. He's saved up from his construction gig, but no one will rent to him without credit and a Social Security number. The man bought a cheap van off Facebook so his family would have somewhere to stay if they were evicted.

He heard that Minnesota is cold in the winter, but acknowledged, "We are not prepared. ... I don't know what kind of clothes we need. I don't know what the temperatures will be."

Asked if he has winter boots, the man pointed to his Crocs — the only shoes he owns.

Flying in from other cities

Ecuadorian natives Dennis, 26, and his pregnant wife, Jennifer, 19, spent months in a homeless shelter in northern New Jersey, then spent a night at a shelter in New York. When people there offered free plane tickets, the couple agreed to go to Minneapolis because Dennis has eight relatives who recently arrived in Minnesota from Ecuador.

While many migrants come straight to Minneapolis upon presenting themselves to immigration authorities at the southern border, others come after a stint in New York. Mayor Eric Adams has said the migrant crisis will destroy the city as it struggles to abide by a court-ordered "right to shelter" law that is more expansive than Hennepin County's policy.

As a result, New York for months has offered migrants free tickets to other cities where they have friends or family, working "to connect individuals with friends, family, and networks whether in New York City or outside of it," mayoral spokesman Kate Smart said in a statement published in Politico in June. "We are not coercing people to leave, we are not suggesting or recommending locations."

In recent days New York has stepped up efforts to offer migrants one-way tickets to anywhere in the world, directing those evicted from shelters to a reticketing center as Adams suggested Thursday that "we should spread [migrants] out across the entire country."

At the Bloomington hotel, men can stay only if they have children. So Jennifer has a room there while Dennis stays with relatives in a shelter in downtown Minneapolis.

"It's OK, but I don't like to be here by myself," Jennifer said.

Hennepin County gives $1 million a year to a hotline run by Catholic Charities that people call seeking shelter, and it recently approved an additional $400,000 to hire more staff, some bilingual. The county has also invested in preventing evictions and rapidly rehousing evicted renters. Yet the system is so overwhelmed that officials said there were 22 incidents of families being turned away in recent weeks.

Read the entire article on the Star Tribune's website