Officials in Minneapolis say they've dramatically reduced crime downtown by focusing on 50 people who've been arrested repeatedly for loitering and panhandling.
Several public and private groups worked together to try to change these offenders' lives, so they would stop committing crimes.
A year ago, Molly spent her time panhandling in front of businesses on Nicollet Mall. She alternated between holding a sign and walking up to people to ask them for money.
Monica Nilsson of St. Stephens Human Services said Molly (Nilsson wouldn't give out her last name) would spend her evenings in front of a church at the entrance to 35W southbound.
“They're kind of like walking ghosts around downtown.”Monica Nilsson, St. Stephens
"So folks who were leaving town for the day would see her laid out on a bench at the church," Nilsson said.
Molly is about 40 years old and had untreated schizophrenia. She was what Minneapolis Police considered one of the 50 most frequent offenders downtown.
These are people arrested again and again for things like aggressive panhandling, trespassing, and public intoxication -- all crimes usually related to living on the streets.
In fact, Nilsson said most people on the top 50 list are homeless. A majority are also men and minorities.
"They're kind of like walking ghosts around downtown," Nilsson said. "They're kicked out of all the shelters, in some cases they're kicked out of the hospital, they're kicked off the buses, and they need serious chemical and mental health intervention."
A group of people got together a year ago to try to find a long-term solution to the problem. The program they came up with was named the Downtown 100, because it was supposed to track the hundred most frequent offenders, but eventually the group decided to limit the list to 50.
The project was funded by $150,000 from the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, a special taxing district that downtown business pay in to.
The groups involved in the project include the Minneapolis Police Department, the city attorney, Hennepin County Attorney's office, Hennepin County Community Corrections, the Salvation Army, neighborhood groups, and Monica Nilsson's organization, St. Stephen's.
"Every week, we're all at the table -- the beat cops, the homeless advocates, the prosecutors -- and we're all saying what is the best solution for this person," she said.
The grant allowed the city to hire a dedicated downtown prosecutor and probation officer for the first time. Working with the nonprofit groups, they find people housing in apartments in the community and get them in chemical or mental health treatment.
The results, according to the city, have been dramatic. Officials say there has been a 74 percent decrease in crimes committed by the group called the top 50 offenders in downtown Minneapolis. Even better for many advocates is the fact that few of the people on the top 50 list have re-offended in other parts of the city -- so crime isn't simply displaced to another neighborhood.
Sarah Harris, chief operating officer of the Downtown Improvement District, said the project's results are evident on downtown streets.
"I think what people will notice is that they will not see the same person causing the same trouble day after day, number one," Harris said. "Number two, the statistics matter and when we can start to show that we are reducing crime it makes people feel better about what's happening downtown, and that makes them more likely to make a decision [to] locate a business, or to go to the theater, or to bring their families downtown for a dinner."
Harris said federal and state spending has been cut to mental health and housing support services that would usually help the kind of people on the top 50 list.
"Many of the reasons people are having bad behavior is because they have these other support services missing in their lives, and so that's why we're trying to help them get back into a situation that's healthier for them and as a result not having to do bad things downtown," she said.
Harris said her organization reviews the program annually to assess whether it should be renewed. Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal hopes to keep the project in place and, if possible, expand.
"Even without that funding there are parts of this we would like to keep going, but hopefully we are proving the value of this and so hopefully this will just become the model and the norm going forward," Segal said.
And the norm for Molly? The woman who used to panhandle near the 35W entrance? Now she has her own apartment and is in mental health treatment.