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Clarence Evans spent almost three months this winter at Dakota County's rotating church shelter, but he had few options in mind when he learned that resource would shut down this spring.

"I would have slept in my van, done work on the side," he said.

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Instead, Evans, 38, and nearly four dozen other adults moved to a long-term hotel in Eagan in late March, not only keeping them from being homeless again but also reducing the likelihood they will contract or spread the coronavirus.

"We felt that the best solution for everyone is to have a place to go, to dwell in, while this virus is making its way through our community," said Subi Ambrose, executive director of Matrix Housing Services, which ran the winter shelter and now oversees the hotel operation.

Without a place to go, some of the winter shelter residents would have used buses or trains for housing or gravitated toward large shelters, both of which are potential hot spots for COVID-19 transmission, she said.

The hotel, which asked not to be identified for publicity reasons, is sheltering homeless single adults or couples with a disability and some link to Dakota County. It's expensive but also the best option for their safety and health, Ambrose said.

There's a waiting list of 20 adults who qualify, along with many others who have requested shelter.

Before the pandemic hit, Dakota County officials had been considering using a hotel as emergency housing when the winter church shelter program ended. A smaller-scale effort has been underway at a Burnsville hotel since January, said Steve Throndson, a county resource coordinator.

The coronavirus made finding emergency housing even more urgent. The hotel gave the county a special deal for booking 40 rooms for a long period, he said. Using hotels for the homeless also benefits the hospitality industry, which has seen vacancy rates soar in the past several weeks because of the pandemic.

"The hotel owners that I've spoken with have been very interested in wanting to help," Throndson said. "It's been a win-win for us."

The hotel program, which is paid for with state Department of Human Services funds that flow through the county, will continue through Sept. 30 at a total cost of $639,000.

The hotel provides a respite for the dozens of residents living there, the vast majority of whom also stayed at the winter church shelter. Some have illnesses and are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, Ambrose said.

"I think we saw an incredible sigh of relief," she said. "They were so happy to get over to that hotel."

Hennepin County is using three hotels for homeless people during the pandemic, and St. Louis County has taken the same step. But Ambrose said Dakota County was unique in using a hotel to house a large group rather than small and specific populations, and because it did so before state emergency funding was available.

Hotel residents, whether single adults or couples, get their own room with a kitchenette. Food comes from Loaves and Fishes Monday through Thursday, while the Open Door, another nonprofit, delivers on Fridays. Residents get gift cards for food and can cook their own meals.

Natalie Gorak, a Matrix hotel sheltering advocate, said residents love being able to cook for themselves and sleep in a bed in their own room. They can wake up and plan their day as they wish, which wasn't possible in the church shelters.

"Those sorts of independent living skills, they get them back by being in a hotel setting," she said.

The hotel also allows pets and is now home to four cats and two dogs. "I've never worked at a shelter that has allowed pets before," Gorak said. "It's brilliant."

Hotel staffers are encouraging residents to remain in their rooms as much as possible, to talk with social service providers on the phone rather than in person and to wear masks, she said.

Evans said on most days he reads, goes for walks, makes phone calls and listens to music. He prepares some meals himself and eats the food brought in — tilapia, baked chicken, salad. It's the healthiest he's eaten in a long time.

"It's really comfortable," he said. "I'm very thankful for it."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781