Next steps for Olmsted County transitional housing under review

Mar. 20—ROCHESTER — Rome Hodges became homeless approximately 18 months after the person he was living with wasn't helping pay rent, and they ended up parting ways.

"I had to move and ended up being homeless," he said.

He's hoping his time without permanent housing is near an end, and credits his current stay at an Olmsted County transitional housing facility, known as The Creek, as getting him close to securing an apartment.

"The Creek is a good place," he said. "They take care of you. That's the big thing about it. They help you a lot."

The Creek opened in 2020, using federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, to rent a former group home at 2206 11th Ave. SE to provide short-term housing for 12 people at a time with the goal of securing permanent shelter for program participants.

The funding shifted to state support last year, and the county's lease is slated to end this summer, so the Housing and Redevelopment Authority is looking for the next steps, which could involve purchasing the building to continue the program.

Last year, the program helped 31 people transition from homelessness to being fully housed.

Among them was Jermayiah Neal.

Like Hodges, Neal learned about The Creek after staying at the Rochester Community Warming Center.

The 25-year-old had been homeless in St. Louis last winter, when she suffered severe frostbite that resulted in both her feet being amputated.

In a wheelchair, she moved back to Rochester to be closer to family, but found herself homeless again in September, when she began staying at the warming center and asking where she could find support.

Mary O'Neil, Olmsted County's housing stability team program manager, said The Creek provided an option that helped Neal connect to housing through an assigned case worker from Zumbro Valley Health Center.

"We were able to transition her quickly, so she didn't have to remain homeless long," she said, pointing out a two-month stay at The Creek provided the support needed to transition.

Now in permanent housing, Neal said she's still receiving support from Zumbro Valley and hopes the security will help provide her a path to independence, perhaps through work related to social media.

"That is something in my life that I want to find," she said. "That way I won't be homeless."

Hodges said his short time at The Creek has already supported his ability to make it to his job as a housekeeper in a local hotel, and the hope of finding permanent housing makes him more confident about his future.

"It's a good thing for a person," he said of the experience.

With a three-month limit for a stay at The Creek, O'Neil said not all participants end their stays with long-term housing. Last year, 12 people ended up returning to being homeless and staying at the Rochester Community Warming Center on a regular basis.

The reasons, she said, are varied.

"It could be that their substance use or mental health concerns are worse than we anticipated," she said. "Sometimes what we are finding is people may have said they secured a job before moving into The Creek, which might not have happened."

Jacob Radtke, the member of the county's housing stability team that reviews applications for The Creek, said the goal is to find people poised to make the transition, but the effort can be difficult for some.

"We have found some people struggle to be in that setting and engage with services," he said. "Sometimes their time expired without being able to find something."

With Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota providing support services at both locations, O'Neil said participants can still build on work done at The Creek if they don't transition to permanent housing right away.

Olmsted County Housing Director Dave Dunn said the three-year program has demonstrated the ability to help find a variety of paths to housing, without a significant local cost.

"This is something we are doing to help people that hasn't cost the county any money," he said.

The $354,000 in annual expenses have been covered by federal and state funds, but the next round of financing is uncertain.

Dunn said he's 95% sure continued state funding will be secured, but the outcome will depend on the state budget and other legislative decisions.

If the state funding ends, the county HRA has six months of program funding in its budget to complete the year, if a location exists.

On Tuesday, the HRA board is slated to discuss the potential for purchasing the building.

"We have had active conversations with (the owners), and I think there is mutual interest," Dunn said.

Discussion of potential purchase price will be held in a closed session, but Dunn said there's value in owning the building.

"It allows us long-term access and allows us to control the future of the property and what we'd like to do," he said.

Olmsted County Board Chairman Gregg Wright, who also leads the HRA board, said rent paid on the building so far could have put the county ahead of current efforts.

"If we had bought this, depending on the price, it could have been owned by now, or at least three-fifths owned or whatever it is," he said.

In addition to discussing the potential purchase of The Creek property, Olmsted County commissioners are expected to discuss the potential purchase of another former group home for sale, as well as other options for the transitional housing program.