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Hennepin and Ramsey counties are planning to spend millions to beef up shelter capacity at the tail end of a year that has forced local officials to grapple with a homelessness crisis that’s filled shelter and hotel beds and led to makeshift camps across the region.

Hennepin County is poised to spend more than $20 million on six new sites, including two permanent shelters, to house people affected by the pandemic. Ramsey County plans to spend an estimated $2 million to $3 million to lease the former Bethesda Hospital and provide services for homeless residents through spring 2022.

Combined, it’s one of the largest outlays of taxpayer dollars to combat homelessness in recent memory. It’s also an added responsibility for Minnesota’s largest counties, which have shouldered a significant portion of the regional and state response to the pandemic and resulting rise in unsheltered homelessness.

“I don’t think the answer is to say, ‘Well, we’re going to stop serving people,’ because we have to serve people,” said St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker. “But at the same time … this is unsustainable for just St. Paul or just Minneapolis or just the inner core to be providing these services.”

Hennepin County will add five sites in Minneapolis and one in Bloomington, with a total of more than 300 beds. Two of the sites, both in Minneapolis, will become traditional homeless shelters; the other four will be used to house individuals at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

The County Board will vote on all six sites in the next few weeks. The most expensive building, a former 104-room hotel at 7900 S. Lyndale Av. in Bloomington, will cost the county $13 million.

In September, Ramsey County and St. Paul officials said they wanted to add 100 homeless shelter beds by winter, increasing the number of available beds in the east metro to more than 800.

On Tuesday, a day after Fairview Health announced that it would shutter Bethesda Hospital, county officials said they had been in closed-door talks with the health care group for several weeks.

County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo said she’s getting questions from community members about how the shelter will operate, what services it will provide and what security measures the county plans to take. She said 150 people have signed up to attend a virtual Town Hall meeting Thursday.

Though the county would typically do community outreach before crafting this kind of plan, MatasCastillo said, “this is one of those unique situations where an opportunity has fallen into our laps.” Commissioners could vote on portions of the plan as early as next week.

Bethesda, which has served as a COVID-19 treatment center since March, has a current patient capacity of 126, according to a Ramsey County spokesman.

Though there are no other shelters in the immediate area, MatasCastillo said, the hospital, located north of the State Capitol, is minutes away from shelters downtown.

Shevek McKee, Capitol River Council board chairman, said he hadn’t heard about the possible shelter but wasn’t surprised, given that people experiencing homelessness tend to gravitate toward downtown. Residents saw encampments proliferate this summer, he said, “and obviously proper shelter facilities are better options.”

The Bethesda location, in the shadow of the Capitol, seems like a good fit, McKee said: “I think there’s something to be said for the shelter space being adjacent to the lawmakers.”

Counties find cash for shelters

Hennepin and Ramsey counties are considering plans to convert a variety of properties into shelters for the homeless, including several locations for those at-risk of COVID-19 or needing a place to quarantine.

Ramsey County

• 559 N. Capitol Blvd., St. Paul, M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital, cost and capacity to be determined.

Hennepin County shelter sites

• 1251 N. Washington Av., Minneapolis, 100 beds, $2 million

• North Minneapolis site to be determined, 30 beds, $800,000

Hennepin County sites for those with COVID-19 risks

• 7900 S. Lyndale Av., Bloomington, 104 beds, $13 million

• 5637 S. Lyndale Av., Minneapolis, 35 beds, $2.7 million

• 121 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis, 20 beds, $1 million

• 143 19th St. E., Minneapolis, 25 beds, $900,000