'Text Homeless' set to debut in northeast Minnesota county

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DULUTH, Minn. — Inspired by the success of a suicide prevention program that allows people in crisis to reach out via text message, St. Louis County is turning to cellphones to aid the homeless.

The "Text Homeless" pilot program calls for people who are homeless or on the cusp of homelessness to text 85511 and type in "homeless." By doing so, a person will receive a series of yes or no questions that will allow United Way coordinators to arrange the more detailed in-person screenings that can lead to transitional housing.

St. Louis County is the first county in the state to install the program, which launches Thursday, June1.

"We're trying to expand our reach to a larger area and a younger audience," said Head of the Lakes United Way's Rory Strange, who oversees the agency's 211 call center that is the entry point for connecting people who are homeless with the service agencies that can help them.

The call center, though, is open only on a limited basis — Monday through Thursday in the afternoons. By accepting texts, more people figure to be served in a timely way, and more people in harder-to-reach places across St. Louis County will be able to make contact, Strange said.

"The beauty of this is that it's 24 hours," said St. Louis County social worker Charles Obije, who explained that even during off-hours a person's texted information will be collected into a queue rather than having them leave a voice message for initial contact later on during business hours.

A demonstration on Tuesday, May 30, revealed that the pre-screening process takes about three minutes. After the initial "homeless" text to 85511, a person receives a text thanking them for reaching out, followed by a series of multiple-choice questions. The follow-up texts wonder if a person is a military service veteran, fleeing domestic abuse, where the person slept last night, if they're within 14 days of eviction and more.

Text Homeless not only gives coordinators valuable information about the individuals, but makes follow-ups easier for having a contact number on file. Once an in-person screening is arranged, coordinators can text meeting reminders or other follow-up queries. The idea is that Text Homeless will reduce appointment no-shows.

"A lot of times people who are homeless are dealing with crisis or have a lot on their plate," Strange said. "A reminder text will cut down on those no-shows. There's not a lot of them, but it's important because no-shows take up appointments and keep others from getting in."

From January through April, United Way averaged about 98 monthly pre-screenings over the phone from throughout St. Louis County. Once screened, a more formal meeting is arranged with the agency that best matches the person's needs. Agencies involved include the Salvation Army in both Duluth and Virginia, American Indian Community Housing Organization, Life House (for people younger than 25) and more. The average wait for the formal screening is less than two weeks, Strange said.

Most people who are homeless have access to cellphones, Obije said, including many through the federal Lifeline program.

"Even if they're out of minutes, they can still text," Obije said.

The Text Homeless program is a pilot program funded by a $4,000 state grant with additional funding from the Ordean Foundation. The goal is to roll out the program statewide, much like the Txt4Life suicide prevention program was after its early success in Carlton County. Obije said a Text Homeless media campaign, complete with billboard notifications and posters, is in the works to help proliferate the program and 85511 phone number.

"Nobody is doing what we're doing," Strange said. "It's innovative and it just makes sense."