Every so often now during COVID-19, I think of the movie “Awakenings.” Based on the memoir by Oliver Sacks, it starred Robin Williams as a doctor treating people living with permanent brain injuries. Thanks to an experimental medication, one of his long-comatose patients (played by Robert De Niro) briefly “wakes up” and leads a normal life. The heartbreaking ending arrives when the drug proves to be only temporary relief. The patients return to their previous debilitated states, and there’s nothing Robin Williams can do about it.
In many ways, the federal reaction to the COVID pandemic resembles that plot. For a brief moment in time, funding materialized that cured long-intractable problems like reducing child poverty, funding unemployment at a dignified level and functionally ending homelessness in cities like St. Paul. For the past year, anyone who needed a bed and a roof over their head could get one in Ramsey County.
That’s no longer true. The money has run out, and policymakers and shelter providers are facing the grim prospect of going back to the less humane way that our society treated people before COVID. “We’re moving from SRO (single-room occupancy) back to congregate care, which is not ideal for individuals, but that’s where we’re at,” explained Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, who represents some of the cities’ least wealthy neighborhoods.
The federal money allowed Ramsey County, like many local governments, to sign temporary leases for SRO shelters — making a huge difference for folks who had been out on the street. “Honestly, the expansion for family shelter system was one of the biggest silver linings of the pandemic,” explained Sarah Liegl, the director of the St. Paul’s Project Home. “The influx of money taught us there’s a much better way. It’s amazing. Families can come in and have their own room and lock their door, and we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of families finding housing.”
Liegl’s Project Home is a decades-old interdenominational effort providing stability for unsheltered families with kids, usually in the local school system. It relies on religious institutions to provide space and volunteers to staff temporary shelters for a few weeks at at time. For example, I’ve volunteered a few times to help staff an overnight temporary shelter at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill. Kids and moms ate and watching TV in the large church kitchen and slept in cots set up in the gym, before heading off to school or other day shelters in the morning.
These days, though, Project Home is leasing out a large former convent from the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul’s Highland neighborhood, allowing them to give families stable homes. But things are changing fast as the influx of federal CARES money runs out. Programs like Liegl’s are scraping couches to find money for keeping the lights on. In place of the federal influx, Liegl is hoping for state dollars during this legislative session. Meanwhile, Ramsey County is using the last of its reserve money to keep its housing programs in place for another month or two.
Without help, it leaves a bleak outlook for shelters focused on individuals, like the former Bethesda Hospital site in the Capitol Heights neighborhood. “The 100 men that were at Bethesda are no longer there,” said MatasCastillo, referring to the county’s temporary shelter. “Some were able to find housing, some moved to other shelters, and some went to live with family or double up.”
Bethesda was just one of the temporary hotels and buildings run by the county during COVID. Most of them are gone today, but their success left an impression on policymakers. “The big takeaway is that we need to to stabilize folks who are experiencing homelessness in a space that’s there 24 hours a day,” explained MatasCastillo. “The previous model that, unfortunately, we have to go back to was a lottery system: You get in line, get a ticket, hope to get a bed, and are waiting around all day to figure out where you’re going to sleep at night, only to get up early in the morning and do it all over again. You’re kind of stuck.”
It’s not surprising that spending more money “upstream” can improve outcomes. This kind of “housing first” approach is common in many countries, most notably Finland, where policymakers and politicians have learned that spending money upfront is a great investment. Not only is it the moral thing to do, it also saves tax dollars down the road because it avoids expensive social service costs.
The hope for both MatasCastillo and Sara Liegl is that the COVID pandemic “silver lining” offers an example of a roadmap for the future. It might be the first sign of possible change in a field that’s long been seen as an almost Sisyphean struggle against an inevitably victorious foe.
The ending of “Awakenings“ is gutting, as patients gradually return to their catatonic states. Their human capacities and personalities fade away, and they return to unresponsive comas.
In this case, though, nobody’s waiting for a miracle of science to solve a problem. The U.S. government just proved that it can fix long-standing social ills, and the hope is that a large state surplus can keep the county’s unsheltered families in their stable homes. “To have this big of a surplus, it seems pretty ridiculous to not be able to house families who need us,” said Liegl. “I hope they do the right thing and everything moves forward. I would hate to go backward to a system that does not work the best for the families.”