A $40 million project in Hennepin County will bring government help closer to the people who need it.
For two decades, county residents seeking assistance with food, money or health care have gone to the county's main financial assistance center in downtown Minneapolis. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people visit the building every month.
Hennepin County has a five-year plan to close that center and move services closer to clients by building six regional hubs, the first of which has been up and running for about four months in Brooklyn Center.
Two more hubs are slated to open before the end of 2013, one in south Minneapolis and one in Bloomington. Officials expect to open the three remaining sites by the end of 2014, though they do not yet have a location for the north Minneapolis site. The plan also includes more than a dozen smaller, satellite locations.
"The hub system is all about trying to place our direct services, the services we provide directly to residents in the county, in their communities, where they live," said Rex Holzemer, assistant county administrator for Human Services in Hennepin County.
At the Brooklyn Center hub, people quietly wait their turn in line. But questions about what services were like before the hub opened — when they had to travel from the suburbs to downtown Minneapolis for help — opens a can of worms.
"It's just hell. Excuse my language, but it's a rat race down there," said John Hammick, referring to the county's main financial assistance center. "You could spend a work day down there, and really get nowhere. Hammick and his family were at the Brooklyn Center hub seeking help with rent."
"It's just too much, I hate going down there, actually. I hate it. It's a really long wait," said Makya Watkins, a Brooklyn Center resident. Watkins was in line to sign up for cash assistance.
"Especially when I had to take my kids, it's just horrible," Brianna Williams said.
Williams is a single mom who lives with her two kids in Brooklyn Park. She says it takes time and money to get to the county's downtown location.
"I would have to go and catch the bus going to the Brooklyn Center transit center, and then I have to catch a bus going downtown, and then catch a bus to Century Plaza."
Holzemer said he hoped the new locations will make it easier for people to access services. "For years, we've heard how difficult it is for many of the people who are struggling to come downtown," Holzemer said. "It's not convenient for them, frankly."
When services are located in the community, people will seek help earlier, he said. That's significant, because Holzemer wants people to come for help before they're in serious crisis.
"So, you're able to intervene earlier and ultimately help people get back on their feet much more quickly," Holzemer said.
Holzemer said if people wait too long, they may need more help, which can be more expensive.
People are coming in for help. The Brooklyn Center hub was designed to serve up to 250 clients daily. On some days, as many as 450 show up. Holzemer admits that has been a struggle, but said they have been able to adjust. About 20 percent of clients are coming from other parts of the metro area. Officials expect that will abate once the other hubs open.
It's not just the location that makes these hubs different. Each one will share a building with other organizations. In Brooklyn Center's hub, the Osseo-area schools offer adult education, such as GED classes. And downstairs, there's food at the Community Emergency Assistance Program.
At CEAP's food shelf, volunteers stock cans of soup while families pick up bags of canned goods and produce. CEAP Executive Director Byron Laher says it makes sense to share a building, because food shelf clients often need more than just food.
"When you don't have enough food, that's really a symptom of something else," Laher said. "If you're hungry, it's because you don't have enough money to buy food. And if you don't have enough money to buy food, you probably are struggling to make your rent payment. You're worried about for paying child care expenses."
Now, when Laher sees someone struggling, he knows there's county help right there in the building.
Clare Brumback, CEAP's director of development, said staff can make referrals immediately.
"We can get up off the chair and say, 'Come with me, and let's go upstairs together, and let me show you how this works,'" she said.
Back upstairs in the county offices, the service clientele like what they see. One says the building feels more like a library than a welfare center. All were seen and out in fewer than 30 minutes.
Williams said that allows her to do more important things, like work full-time and spend time with her children. She doesn't need a food shelf, but she's glad it is downstairs in case she ever does. Meanwhile, she's thrilled this place is in her neighborhood.
"Having it here, I just go here, get what I need, turn in the papers and be on my way."
Today, Williams is headed to her job at Walgreens. She's trying to earn enough to save a little for college.