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How homeless shelters across Minnesota are scrambling to prevent the spread of COVID-19

Across the state, housing advocates are worried that shelters’ inability to keep guests away from each other could turn the facilities into “ground zero” for an outbreak. 

homeless camp
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Statewide, about 20,000 people sleep in vehicles, emergency shelters or outdoor encampments on any given night.
Emergency homeless shelters in Minnesota are scrambling to move guests with underlying health conditions to hotels or apartments to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Across the state, housing advocates are worried that the shelters’ inability to keep guests away from each other, given many facilities’ side-by-side cots and shared bathrooms, could turn them into “ground zero” for an outbreak. 

“Our assumption is that once we do get a case of COVID-19 in the shelter, that it’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Steve Horsfield, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Simpson Housing, at a virtual press conference last week.

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So with emergency funding from the state, shelter providers and local governments are partnering with hotels and other buildings to provide quarantined space for the record-high number of Minnesotans who aren’t able to follow Gov. Tim Walz’ “stay-at-home” order because they don’t have their own homes. State lawmakers’ COVID-19 response bill, which they approved Thursday, includes $26.5 million for efforts to prevent the virus’ spread specifically among homeless residents.

“The situation is becoming even more dire,” said Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “We are operating field hospitals for the poor.”

‘Like wildfire’ 

Due to job layoffs across the Twin Cities’ service and restaurant industries, Marx said more people are seeking emergency shelter or meals via Catholic Charities over the past month adding to the more than 1,000 guests who typically sought help each day from the nonprofit pre-COVID-19.

The new traffic has increased expenses by at least $1 million a month for cleaning supplies and staffing, and those expenditures are still not enough, he said. To help Catholic Charities and similar housing providers keep guests healthy, he wants state leaders to partner with owners of stadiums or arenas to establish new quarantine spaces for homeless residents.

“Social distancing, sanitary conditions and other things that keep people safe from the virus … simply are very difficult, if not impossible, to make happen in our shelters with people on bunks on top of each other, on mats very few feet apart, lack of adequate sanitation,” he said. “We must change the circumstances.”

Statewide, about 20,000 people sleep in vehicles, emergency shelters or outdoor encampments on any given night, according to estimates by Wilder Research. In its 2018 count, about 80 percent of respondents said they suffer from chronic illness, substance abuse or mental illness putting them at high risk of severe health problems due to COVID-19 and a growing proportion are age 55 or older.

Horsfield, of Simpson Housing, said his emergency shelters are now open 24-7 to accommodate the influx of people in need of shelter. Yet, in the long run, he feels they are not prepared to fight an outbreak of COVID-19 in the shelters should residents be asymptomatic now and spreading the virus at facilities without knowing it. “Our shelter guests are sharing restrooms with 70 of their peers,” he said. 

Monica Nilsson, who is shelter director of Strong Tower Parish and Elim Church overnight shelters in northeast Minneapolis, said capacity and sanitation challenges are creating concern for her, too. Currently, shelter guests, some of whom are sick, are sleeping on rows of mats two-feet apart. 

The problems are not isolated to homeless shelters in the metro, the epicenter of Minnesota’s COVID-19 outbreak. Lee Stuart, executive director of Duluth’s Churches United in Ministry, which runs the region’s largest emergency center, said guests and staff can “barely maintain safe distance,” and she’s worried for the some 150 homeless people who are sleeping in wooded areas surrounding Duluth.

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Stuart said she’s working with St. Louis County leaders to develop an action plan should a homeless resident test positive for COVID-19 and need hospitalization. Additionally, she said shelter staff are screening incoming guests for fevers, stocking up on cleaning supplies and keeping a close eye on how Seattle’s King County is treating COVID-19 patients who don’t have homes.

“We’re barely ready, but we also know that we’re not ready for as large of a problem as this might [be],” she said.

Finding quarantine facilities

With more state aid on the way, some Minnesota counties have already entered lease agreements with owners of hotels or other buildings to set up isolation rooms for homeless residents.

The Hennepin County Board of commissioners, for example, has set aside $3 million to negotiate leases with hotels to quarantine homeless seniors and people with existing respiratory problems on a voluntary basis. So far, the county has moved about 200 people in those populations across six shelters (about 22 percent of total guests) to hotel rooms, where they’re receiving delivery meals and help from county workers, said David Hewitt, director of the county’s Office to End Homelessness. 

Separately, he said public health officials are working to establish sites for confirmed COVID-19 patients or people who show signs of the virus but are waiting for their test results and don’t want to put their families or roommates at risk by getting over symptoms at home.

Ramsey County is leasing Catholic Charities’ Mary Hall to provide isolation rooms for homeless residents.

In Rochester’s Olmsted County, commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said several shelters have closed over the past month because staff could not provide the proper space or cleaning supplies in the wake of the pandemic. Instead, the county is temporarily using a portion of the Mayo Civic Center to allow homeless residents to sleep on cots six feet apart and contracting with hotels for isolation rooms. “The number of people seeking shelter has gone up,” she said.

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More help on the way from the state

It’s only the beginning of emergency spending by local governments — with the help of state and federal funding — to help Minnesotans in poverty and at high-risk of catching the virus.

On Thursday, Minnesota lawmakers convened at the state Capitol for a one-day session, where they approved a $330 million package of pandemic-related policies. 

It was the state’s third COVID-19-related appropriation, though the first to funnel money to help the state’s emergency housing shelter system fight the virus. Another $200 million in grant funding is available for hospitals and local health care departments on the forefront of fighting COVID-19.

coronavirus quarantine facility
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
A security guard patrols outside a former motel that was bought by King County as a coronavirus quarantine facility in Kent, Washington. King County is currently spending more than $19 million on emergency quarantine facilities.
Of the bill’s $26.5 million allocation to help homeless Minnesotans, lawmakers set aside more than half about $15.2 million to expand shelter capacity and pay for vouchers for hotel rooms or other housing arrangements. Additionally, legislators dedicated $5 million for emergency housing providers to buy more sanitation supplies and personal protective gear, such as masks and gloves, and another $6.3 million to boost staffing.

“We are working very hard, and some of the things we are trying to do is get money out the door to accommodate people who are homeless,” said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, who chairs the House’s Health and Human Services Finance Committee and helped write the legislation.

The funding has an expiration date, which means it’s intended only to cover the costs of quarantine spaces and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in shelters now. But once the dust of the pandemic settles revealing the true results of an economic downturn in Minnesota state leaders and housing experts are preparing for a new wave of residents to seek emergency housing in shelters or rely on government subsidies to help pay their rent or mortgages.

Hewitt, of Hennepin County, said he’s thinking about the county’s response in three phases: First, it needs to take preventative measures to move at-risk homeless individuals into safer housing. Second, the county needs to boost funding for frontline homeless services, such as shelters, which are becoming more expensive to operate amid COVID-19.

“What they’re wrestling with right now is staff shortages, supply shortages, cost overruns,” Hewitt said. “That’s put a lot of extra pressure on the homeless response system.”

Lastly, he said Hennepin County needs to prepare for low-income workers in the service and entertainment industries who were one paycheck away from homelessness and now have lost their jobs needing emergency housing, “in the not-so-distant future.”