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5 questions as Minneapolis opens experimental homeless shelter

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James Loerzel relocates from the encampent to the navigation center.
"Leaving tent city!" James Loerzel, right, said as he relocates from the encampment on Franklin and Hiawatha avenues to the "navigation center." Loerzel was the first person to move into the temporary shelter.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

Minneapolis opens a different kind of temporary shelter Tuesday as 10 people move from a homeless encampment along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues into a "navigation center," a cluster of structures designed to house up to 120 people when completed.

The model, the first of its kind in Minnesota, takes an unorthodox approach to housing the homeless. If it succeeds, officials see it as a model for sheltering some of the 9,000 homeless across the state, a potential new path to move people off the streets and into stability.

Here are some of the key questions surrounding the experiment.

1) What is the 'navigation center'?

It's a shelter with a goal of moving people quickly from homelessness to long-term supportive housing or drug and alcohol treatment. But it won't follow the typical shelter rules, which officials view as barriers.

For instance, there are no strict check-in and check-out times, so people can come and go as they please. They are also not required to be sober or have a clean criminal background.

The "navigation center" will not separate adults by gender as happens in traditional shelters. Officials believe such separations could mean someone having to leave a disabled, elderly parent or a partner or another extended family member.

Construction crews work on finishing the inside of a tent-like structure.
Construction crews work on finishing the inside of one of three tent-like structures that can each shelter up to 40 people near a homeless encampment in Minneapolis on Monday.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

There will also be plentiful storage at the center and additional storage off-site, so people won't be required to abandon their belongings to move in.

There's no cost to the people using the shelter. Pets are also welcome.

2) How much is this costing?

The Minneapolis City Council approved spending up to $1.5 million on building the navigation center and leasing nearby land from the Red Lake Nation for the cost of the property taxes owed during the time it's in use.

The city says it's spent $617,000 to buy the structures. It's also paid for environmental clean-up and other work to prepare the site for the structures, an estimated $700,000 cost.

The nonprofit group Simpson Housing Services will run the shelter portion of the site with funds from a private donor.

Costs for additional services such as health care, social work and medication to treat the symptoms of opioid withdrawal are harder to calculate and are funded through a number of revenue streams like MinnesotaCare, the low-income health care program.

3) Will drugs or alcohol be allowed?

There's no place in Minnesota that permits people to use illegal drugs, so city and tribal leaders say residents won't be allowed to actively use on the premise.

However, they also won't be turned away for being drunk or high.

Minneapolis homeless encampment
Construction crews work on Dec. 1, 2018, to erect three structures to temporarily shelter people from Minneapolis' homeless encampment through the coming months.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

"We are taking a clinical, harm-reduction approach to services at the site, and our first and foremost concern is getting people moved into an environment that is safer than the current situation at the encampment," said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services.

4) What will happen to the current encampment?

The encampment sits on land owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and will eventually be closed down, said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

MnDOT typically defers to local authorities in dealing with homeless encampments. That's why a high-profile camp in St. Paul was cleared out several weeks ago, while the one in Minneapolis is still there.

Minneapolis plans to move everyone off the site, even if they choose not to go to the navigation center, said Frey. Tribal, city, and nonprofit leaders say letting people live next to a highway just isn't safe.

However, the city has not yet said how quickly they plan to clear out the encampment or if there's a hard deadline for everyone to leave.

5) What about long-term solutions?

The navigation center is expected to stay open for about six months. Red Lake Nation plans to break ground in June at that site on a 109-unit apartment building for low-income people.

Tribal leaders have also contracted with with a nonprofit called Avivo to help house people from the encampment using a state resource called Housing Support for people with mental or physical disabilities or who have been homeless for a long time.

It's likely every single person in the encampment is eligible. So far they've found about 50 people housing and hope to house 50 more in the coming months.

Hennepin County has also helped a couple dozen people find housing. The city of Minneapolis has budgeted $40 million for affordable housing next year — a record by far.

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