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Eviction prevention provides hope, support

women walking a senior citizen down a hallways

Dawn Olmstead—Hennepin County staff member—had a Zoom conversation with a man who had been summoned to Housing Court and was facing eviction. During COVID, he had lost family members and his job and was struggling with depression.

She told him he was eligible for rent assistance that would potentially pay six months of back rent, which would allow him and his family to remain in their apartment.

"He was so thankful that we were able to help him get some stability; he said, 'just to have some light in my life' – something to keep him going," she said.

Olmstead supervises a team of rental assistance navigators, created out of a pandemic-related plan.

In response to the pandemic, Minnesota placed a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent in early 2020. This moratorium was modified in the summer of 2021 to allow for evictions for individuals not eligible for rental assistance. In June of 2022, the moratorium was officially lifted. When the end of the moratorium was near, Hennepin County staff knew there would be a flood of people entering housing court.

"We had over a year to think about this," said Heidi Schmidt Boyd, who oversees the project. "When we came out of the moratorium, how did we want this to look?"

With the support of Hennepin County leadership, teams were able to hire rental assistance navigators, assign additional staff, and hire attorneys to represent tenants experiencing poverty. The goal was to add more people who could support the anticipated influx of people needing support.

The result: In the past year, every person who wants free legal help and rent help is getting it. Data both before the pandemic and now demonstrates that tenants who are represented are more likely to get their case dismissed or settled in a manner that allows them to stay in their housing.

Housing Court is held virtually using Zoom. When renters appear, the referee tells them about the kinds of assistance that might be available to them. Then, as the court clerk takes roll call, each person is asked if they want free legal help and help with rent assistance. Between 100 and 120 people each month say yes.

Hennepin County attorneys then talk to them, to see if they qualify for legal representation. If they're eligible, an attorney meets with them in a Zoom breakout room.

If the attorney learns about needs for rent assistance, they send a message to the navigators. The three staff members on call can talk to as many as 15 clients in three hours.

"We have to be very strategic to ensure we touch base with all," said Olmstead, who schedules and supervises the team.

Boyd says that one-on-one support is crucial. "People are just overwhelmed. And if you don't have a stable home, how do you function with anything – your job, health, family? So that one-to-one connection, providing individualized services for that one person – is why it works."

Jeanette Boerner from Hennepin County’s Adult Representation Services (ARS) agrees: " I love the holistic lens that we put on prioritizing the health and welfare of our clients. This work is efficient, cost-saving and really empowering for people."

Olmstead said the project has "been a wonderful experience, bonding with different workers where we are helping in situations that can feel hopeless for people. We're able to give them a different direction, to feel hope."