All Things Considered

A tool that prioritizes people for homeless services favored white people. So Hennepin Co. stopped using it.

Hennepin County homeless service providers have found a relatively simple fix to reduce racial inequities in who receives housing. It has to do with an intake questionnaire that's been found to favor white people for permanent housing and to funnel people of color into less intensive options.

Hennepin County changed that process last year — and is already seeing results.

“In the period immediately before the change, we saw almost two-thirds of African American households that got referred to a housing resource got referred to one that was very time-limited,” said David Hewitt, who head’s the county’s Office to End Homelessness. “And we’ve basically seen that almost flip through this shift, where it’s now closer to that two-third marker getting referred to a non-time-limited, ongoing, more intensive support.”

That more intensive support is permanent housing, where clients get rental assistance for as long as they need it, as well as other services to help them maintain housing stability. Less intensive options include limited rental assistance and placement in a shelter.

Like many jurisdictions, Hennepin County doesn’t have enough housing or rental subsidies to meet demand, so it was using a survey to prioritize people based on need. A national study of that survey found that it gave fewer points for underlying issues more likely to affect Black families, such as financial strain, and more points to issues often behind homelessness among white people, such as chemical dependency. That’s despite the homeless population being disproportionately Black.

Last spring, Hennepin County did away with that survey and opted for a more simple one that asks how long the client has been homeless, whether they have a disability, and whether they are a veteran.

Hewitt joined MPR News host Tom Crann to talk more about it. Click play on the audio player above to hear their conversation.

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