Sara Emmert arrived in Rochester hoping for change.
She had a job caring for others during the day, but couldn’t find a place to call home at night.
“The parks here became my home,” she said.
While she found family and friends to house her young son each night, Emmert ended up sleeping in a park parking lot on a regular basis until she finally found a place to rent.
Unfortunately, her first rental in Rochester didn’t last long.
“I had moved here with someone, and it turned out to be a very bad relationship,” she said. “I ended up having to leave in the middle of the night with my child, and we ended up in the women’s shelter.”
It was there that she remembers answering questions from a social worker that eventually led to help from the Salvation Army’s Access Home program. The program helped find an apartment for her and her son, and helped pay rent for the first 18 months.
She didn’t realize it, but the questions she answered were part of an assessment that put her into a database with hundreds of other homeless families and individuals hoping for a new start.
The assessment is part of the coordinated entry program created to ensure that people experiencing a housing crisis have fair and equal access to programs. That determination is based on a set of defined priorities.
“Depending on when housing opportunities become available, they may be selected based on their prioritization and their eligibility,” said Katherine Cross, the Three Rivers Community Action coordinated entry specialist serving a 20-county region covering Southeast Minnesota.
In other words, it’s not a first-come, first-served process.
Instead, the system prioritizes needs of each household — the latest count is 1,600 throughout 20 counties — based on a variety of factors
“They are going to look at housing history, they are going to look at mental health history, they are going to look at family size,” said Larry More, a Three Rivers family advocacy specialist. “There are a lot of factors that go into an assessment.”
Other factors include physical health, the number of contacts with law enforcement and whether a family has children in school.
Even with a prioritized list, however, action can’t start until a program has an opening, either an available bed or funding to help someone find more traditional housing.
In Emmert’s case, it took a few weeks before her needs found a match.
The Salvation Army was given a list of names from the coordinated entry list and selected those who best fit the Access Home program. Due to state and federal funding requirements, agencies can’t simply pick their own participants; they must first be vetted by the coordinated entry system.
While Emmert was waiting, she obtained a greater understanding how the prioritized system can cause some homeless residents to wait longer than others.
Her 22-year-old son came to Rochester while she was in the women's shelter but ended up living in her car since he couldn’t find shelter beyond a few days at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, 703 First St. SW.
“There are not a lot of resources for homeless men in this city,” Emmert said.
For other homeless residents, situations can be further limited.
Even if help is found to pay a security deposit or rent, anyone with a felony record will likely struggle to find housing in Rochester, since most apartment complexes screen out those applicants.
When it comes to programs that cater to homeless residents, they frequently screen based on specific needs, so all beds are not right for everyone.
More said that’s one of the reasons the coordinated entry system can seem to take too long for some people with specific needs or expectations. Often an opportunity can arise, but it’s not the right fit for a potential client — it could be the wrong type of housing or in a county that’s too far from work or family.
In those cases, people can decline a program.
“They are placed back in the pool,” he said.
Another challenge is often finding people when a housing opportunity presents itself. Since it can be hard to track down a person without a stable address, More said it's crucial to have viable contact information.
Since such information can change frequently, he said social workers and other advocates on the street play a key role in helping maintain contact and updating information.
In recent discussions of homelessness in Rochester, some local officials have voiced concerns about the program, citing people that have long been unable to find housing in Rochester,
More said that’s likely a product of limited space and programs, as well as a barriers to housing that are seen in all communities.
Cross agreed. “There’s not enough housing to meet the demand and that’s kind of one of the intents behind coordinated entry, it prioritizes the need for what is available,” she said.
Olmsted County Deputy Administrator Paul Fleissner said the size of the program is likely an issue as well.
“Twenty counties across southern Minnesota is a vast area to try to coordinate all of that,” he said.
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said she hopes conversations with consultants from the Corporation for Supportive Housing may point to potential solutions within the current system to maintain equity but also be more responsive to individual needs.
“If they could change their methodology, they could actually do better to help house people,” she said.
At the same time, she noted state and federal funding requirements likely stand in the way of many changes.
“I don’t know if it's something we can easily fix,” she said.
While concerns remain about the process, it worked for Emmert, who has been living in the same rented townhome for two years with her youngest son.
After kicking a prescription drug habit seven years ago, the 41-year-old said she wants to continue moving in the right direction.
Emmert said that following 20 years of surviving on government assistance, she’s found a job at Kahler Grand, with co-workers who provide a positive influence and inspire her to overcome obstacles.
Today, the only government help she receives is medical assistance for her son.
She’s also started giving back, arranging monthly “birthday boxes” for children whose families are facing their own struggles.
“This brings me joy and keeps me on the right path,” she said, remembering how it felt to be unable to celebrate her sons’ birthdays when she was homeless.
At the same time, the threat of homelessness lingers in the background.
Emmert is scheduled to appear in court for possible eviction.
Struggling with a bipolar diagnosis since her teen years, she said impulse control can become an issue.
“As much as I want to deny it, I still have mental health issues,” she said. “The impulsiveness causes me to get into financial trouble at times, which is where I’m at right now.”
She’s hopeful that she can overcome the latest obstacle and maintain a home for herself and her son, but says her story shows how many people with jobs can become easily overwhelmed, despite good intentions.
“I’m the person next door that this could happen to,” she said.