Despite new emergency coronavirus state aid, local government and nonprofit leaders issued separate calls Thursday for more state funding to shield the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying they are currently unprepared for a virus they predict will “spread like wildfire” through their shelters.
Hennepin County officials told commissioners that the cost for housing the homeless during the crisis could hit $1 million per week — a price 25 times higher than its typical weekly expenditure and one they warned the county cannot bear alone.
“There needs to be state help here. Hennepin County can’t shoulder the burden,” County Administrator David Hough said.
Meanwhile, leaders of homeless organizations from Duluth to Rochester said Thursday in a virtual news conference that they need more money and resources, such as access to hotel rooms to house people and sports arenas to serve meals. They also urged the state to increase rental assistance to prevent people from becoming homeless during the economic downturn.
Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the outbreak has cost the organization at least $1 million more a month for extra cleaning, supplies, staffing and food.
On Friday, Ramsey County will open a temporary quarantine facility for single adults with COVID-19 symptoms at Mary Hall, leased from Catholic Charities in St. Paul. The site will provide symptom monitoring, security and transportation.
“The situation is becoming even more dire,” Marx said, adding that homeless shelters are essentially field hospitals for the poor. “We need more support and we need more resources, and we urgently need them now.”
The infection is still in its early stages in the state, and the number of beds needed for the infected and at-risk homeless could climb steeply.
The state’s record high number of homeless people don’t have a home to hunker down in, with some left to live in cars, camps or storage buildings. At shelters, social distancing rules aren’t possible with bunk beds and floor mats bunched together.
About 80% of homeless adults have chronic health conditions, mental illness, or substance abuse issues, according to new research released Wednesday from St. Paul-based Wilder Research, factors which make them more vulnerable during the COVID-19 outbreak.
In regular circumstances, Hennepin, the state’s most populous county, spends about $40,000 weekly on housing for the homeless. That doesn’t include food, health care or transportation. The county generally has about 2,000 homeless residents each night, including 600 without shelter, and accounts for about half the state’s homeless population.
“In any economic crisis, the people who have the least are affected the most,” said David Hewitt, the county’s director of the Office to End Homelessness.
Hennepin County leaders have made it clear, privately and publicly, that the county can’t bear the entire cost of helping the homeless in a pandemic. One commissioner said the county will need help when it reaches 300 homeless residents affected by the virus, and it’s already approaching that number.
Daniel Rogan, Hennepin County’s assistant administrator for operations, described the staggering potential scope of the situation. The county currently has 306 beds that qualify as quarantine and isolation units, many of them in hotels. Already 190 are being used by individuals at high risk of contracting the virus, and another 19 are occupied by residents who are symptomatic, Rogan said.
The County Board voted last week to give administrators up to $3 million to arrange isolation and quarantine efforts for the homeless during the pandemic. Similarly, Ramsey County agreed to spend nearly $2 million to open more space in St. Paul.
The situation outside the Twin Cities was said to be no better. In Rochester, the Dorothy Day House closed because of the outbreak. Olmsted County is now using a hall in the Mayo Civic Center to house people and keep them 6 feet apart, and contracting with hotel rooms for 15 high-risk people, Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said.
In Duluth, the CHUM Center and Emergency Shelter, St. Louis County’s largest emergency shelter, has stepped up cleaning, health screenings, and buying thermometers to take temperatures, said Lee Stuart, the executive director. She said about 140 people stayed at the shelter and drop-in center Wednesday while about 150 others in Duluth remained unsheltered. Stuart said CHUM would need $70,000 a month to open another shelter and $250,000 a month to open a 24/7 quarantine facility.
As Hennepin County seeks more space, shelters struggle to adjust their operations. Shelters are losing volunteers as demands increase and they do additional cleaning.
Residents can no longer congregate for meals in a cafeteria. Some shelters are trying to stay open during the day when they are traditionally closed.
In Minneapolis, Monica Nilsson, shelter director of Strong Tower Parish and Elim Church Shelters, said men and women — some of whom are sick — must are sleep on rows of mats 2 feet apart.
Simpson Housing Services of Minneapolis extended its shelter hours to 24/7, but executive director Steve Horsfield said more needs to be done. Once a shelter has a case of COVID-19, he said, “It’s going to spread like wildfire.”