With highly visible camps of unhoused people in public spaces, Minneapolis has become a focal point of the region’s affordable housing crisis. But another city is also grappling with the Twin Cities’ housing woes amid the coronavirus pandemic: Bloomington.
Since the spring, the city has had several hotels operating as makeshift shelters. At least three hotels, including two Holiday Inns, have been contracted by Hennepin County to house medically vulnerable and elderly people who had previously been in crowded shelters in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Another hotel is being used by Minneapolis-based nonprofits St. Stephen’s and Our Saviour’s Community Services to house about 150 formerly unsheltered people. Still other hotels have cut nightly rates to the point that they’ve also attracted people who don’t have more stable housing.
And though Bloomington is “not alone” among Twin Cities suburbs in having its hotels functioning as makeshift shelters, Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts told the Bloomington City Council during a recent meeting, the efforts to house vulnerable people amid the pandemic have been more concentrated in the city — bringing challenges for both the city and those working with unsheltered populations. “I’m getting emails every day,” Bloomington City Council Member Jack Baloga during the same council meeting.
More calls prompt more cooperation
Between March 1 and Sept. 9, 2020, Bloomington police fielded 493 calls for service to just one of the hotels now being used as a shelter, the Comfort Inn just south of Interstate 494, compared to 107 calls during the same period last year. And though the frequency of the service calls, which are primarily for disturbance, domestic calls, unwanted persons, welfare checks and medical situations, has gone down at some hotels since this spring, the overall volume continues to be a concern, said Potts.
After the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when the county first began moving medically vulnerable and elderly people out of crowded shelters and into the hotels, Potts said the facilities had few staff on site. “Initially, this was something new even for them,” he said. But after Bloomington police notified Hennepin County about the increased calls, however, the county added extra staff, he said. Hennepin County Administrator David Hough, however, was adamant that the county had no staffing issues and was fully staffed right away for any needs, security or otherwise.
Bloomington police have also been working with St. Stephen’s, which is funding its hotel shelter with money from the state’s Office of Economic Opportunity, to provide extra staffing at their Comfort Inn location.
Potts said Bloomington police check-in with Hennepin County and nonprofits on a weekly basis and sometimes more often. He said police also meet with owners of other hotels, such as the LaQuinta Inn and Super 8, which don’t have contracts to provide shelter services but have lowered their rates to the point that they have seen an influx of formerly shelterless people. At those locations, Potts said owners, who were accepting cash payments, implemented a payment process that requires a form of identification or a credit card. He said the added accountability helps police address problems that arise.
Bloomington police have also increased police patrols and surveillance cameras in appropriate places along public right-of-ways and on hotel property with permission from owners.
The situation has not been without its benefits, however. St. Stephen’s spokesperson Robin Stramp said that since the pandemic started, there have been zero cases of COVID-19, even among the scores of people over 55 that have stayed there. And because residents have private rooms with 24-hour access and can sleep according to a schedule that best suits them, multiple shelter guests have been able to secure new jobs and more permanent housing. “To date, 23 individuals have moved out of hotel shelters and into stable housing,” said Stramp, who added the arrangement has also been a financial lifeline for struggling hotels in the area.
Bloomington’s Interim Community Development Director Heather Worthington said the city is not certain exactly how many people are staying in the three hotels being used as shelters by Hennepin County. And though Hennepin County notified Bloomington of its intentions to lease hotels in the city, it is not required to ask the city for permission. Hough, the Hennepin County administrator, said the county gives cities a heads up and takes care of everything related to the housing, including food and security, which is provided by contracted personnel.
City Manager Jamie Verbrugge recently told the council that cities with hotels sheltering people, including Bloomington, are trying to be flexible around regulations to help people through the crises. “This is an extraordinary circumstance,” said Verbrugge. “There is a human factor here as well.”
Council Member Jenna Carter said the city should maintain its emergency mindset but also think about long-term housing plans to help those now sheltered in hotels. “We have to respond to acute needs right now, but I really wanna make sure we’re thinking bigger picture and trying to address some of the underlying issues, and not just making sure that the issue is not in Bloomington — and it’s just somewhere else.”