Native-led effort brings nighttime help to homeless

outreach workers at night
Autumn Dillie (center), an outreach worker with the American Indian Community Development Corporation, organized a nighttime homeless outreach effort across 17 organizations. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Close to midnight one Saturday, a couple dozen nurses, police officers, EMTs and social workers circled up in an empty break room on East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis to plan their night helping the homeless.

It was only the second night this group, with 17 different organizations represented, was meeting to coordinate their outreach efforts in a single 5-hour shift. They’re part of an effort to bring comprehensive services to people living outside at the time when they’re most vulnerable.

Autumn Dillie, an outreach worker with the American Indian Community Development Corporation who organized the group, read from a briefing sheet she printed out for everyone. They would break up into four groups and fan out across south Minneapolis.

A medical team would go in a transport van to assess health issues and provide Hepatitis A vaccinations. There’s currently an on-going outbreak declared by the Minnesota Department of Health, especially prevalent among people experiencing homelessness.

They could also get people on suboxone immediately, said Rosemary Fiste, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, to a handful of “Wows” from the group. Suboxone, or buprenorphine, is a prescription drug used to help people quit opioids by lessening withdrawal symptoms and blocking the narcotic effects.

Two outreach groups would hand out hats, water, snacks and unused needles and would be able to take people to shelter or one of two recently opened drop-in centers at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and another at the American Indian Community Development Corporation, which opened just the night before.

The fourth group would go in Metro Transit’s “Homeless Action Team” bus, which could sign people up for medical benefits, rental subsidies and welfare, as well as take people to shelter and treat minor medical injuries.

“If anybody needs to get a hold of anybody, your team lead has a contact list with everybody’s number on it,” said Dillie, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, before they headed out into the night.

A meeting between cops and Native leaders

This coordinated outreach effort grew out of a meeting between the Minneapolis Police Department and Native leaders around the opioid epidemic, which hit the Native community particularly hard. Native Americans are also disproportionately likely to experience homelessness. Native Americans make up about 1% of the state’s population but account for 12% of the homeless population.

Across the state, homelessness is on the rise. The 2019 point-in-time count saw an increase of about 11% over 2018. The latest figures for 2020 will come out in the next couple months.

While the lack of affordable housing is the main driver of homelessness, a dizzyingly complex bureaucracy makes it difficult for people experiencing homelessness and addiction to access the resources that are available now.

At the meeting with Minneapolis cops, Dillie suggested they pool their resources to work together overnight once a month during the winter, when people’s need for housing and health care is most acute. Then Dillie got on the phone and called every outreach group she could find.

“We have all of these outreach workers that are providing services, but we’re all out at separate times and the majority of us are out during daylight hours,” Dillie said. “We needed to provide services to folks when it’s four degrees and 4 a.m.”

The result of that effort is a lengthy list of participating organizations: Metro Transit Police HAT team, Allina Paramedics, Minneapolis Police Department, Minneapolis Police Community Navigators, White Earth Urban Homeless Housing Specialists, Health Care for The Homeless, American Indian OIC, Hennepin County, Indian Health Board, Indigenous Peoples Task Force, American Indian Community Development Corporation, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, Ain Dah Yung Center, Anishinabe Wakiagun, Streetworks Collaborative, Adult Shelter Connect and St. Stephens Outreach.

While the effort is Native-led, it’s not just for Native people. The first night they went out, just 17 of the 91 people they helped were Native. This coordinated effort also doesn’t cost anything extra. It just requires each organization to allow their employees to work some odd hours while the weather is cold.

One person at a time

Even with this concerted effort, success is measured one person at a time. The last time the group went out in December, they connected with nearly a hundred people. They managed to sign up just a few for welfare and only a half dozen could get into shelter. That night was very cold, so the shelters filled up quickly.

The Metro Transit Police’s mobile assessment vehicle made its way west on Franklin toward the Uptown bus station, while Dillie ran down the inventory of shelter beds she had received from Hennepin County earlier that day.

“This is like gold,” said Carol LaFleur, an outreach coordinator with Metro Transit Police.

Typically, when an outreach worker or a Metro Transit police officer wants to get someone into shelter in Hennepin County, they need to call a central office and do an intake survey over the phone. It’s a lengthy process that can take a half an hour or more. With the list of bed openings, they could call shelters directly to get people in.

“If I go out onto the street, and I talk to somebody, I can’t promise them there’s shelter space,” said Katherine Spear, a police officer with Metro Transit’s Homeless Action Team. “So knowing there’s 93 beds open tonight is very helpful for me to do my job.”

At night, police officers are mostly the only people who come in contact with homeless people. It’s why Metro Transit created the Homeless Action Team about two years ago and trained its six officers in outreach work, crisis intervention and trauma-informed care. There’s a limit to what they’re able to do, however.

They can drive people to shelter or a hospital, but for the most part they can’t connect people directly with the resources that could end their homelessness. Recently, Metro Transit police did get the ability to provide housing vouchers to a hundred people who have a disability.

It’s a limited program. Mostly, what Metro transit police can do is tell people where they should go the next day and hand out business cards with phone numbers that often never get called.

“When we drop them off (at shelter), a lot of times, that’s the last they see of anybody,” Spear said. The Homeless Action Team has added a dayside shift so someone can follow-up in the morning and try to make sure people get connected with services that can move them out of homelessness.

When the bus stopped at the Chicago Avenue station, Dillie found a couple who wanted to go to the drop-in center at the American Indian Community Development Corporation, or AICDC. Unlike most shelters, it’s co-ed so the couple would be able to stay together. It’s also run by a Native group, which is often more appealing to Native people.

On the ride over, the couple was able to sign up for welfare and fill out medical history forms, which are required to verify eligibility for county services.

By the end of the night, the group had connected with over a hundred people across south Minneapolis. Ten people received a Hepatitis-A vaccine. Two people signed up for welfare. One person started on suboxone.

A handful got a ride to AICDC’s overnight drop-in center, but otherwise no one wanted to go to shelter. Dillie attributes that to the relatively mild temperatures, which hovered in the 40s. Another factor was that shelters cost money when you have it, and since it was the beginning of the month, people who do receive government assistance didn’t want to hand it over to a shelter.

Dillie says so far, joining together is working, even if successes are small.

“When we pray, we make prayer ties, and we bind them together,” Dillie said. “And that’s what we’re doing, is we’re binding together so we can have a bigger effect and help more people at one time.”