Last summer, at least 380 people were living in outdoor encampments in St. Paul. As of early August, that number had dropped to 24, according to city officials.
Local officials attribute the dramatic decline to two things: a new network of Ramsey County shelters and leased hotel rooms, plus a decision by the city to stop servicing encampments and move people indoors when space became available.
"The response from the city, county and service providers in response to the highly visible crisis around unsheltered individuals was like nothing I have seen," City Council President Amy Brendmoen said. "We stopped blaming each other and started pulling together to solve a very serious and complex problem."
Ramsey County has spent $26 million of its federal COVID-19 aid on its homelessness response, which includes creating new accommodations for nearly 500 homeless individuals in the past year. An additional $37 million has been earmarked for permanent affordable housing developments.
Meanwhile, St. Paul officials — who had allowed encampments at the start of the pandemic in alignment with the governor's emergency executive orders and had provided meals, trash pickup and portable toilets at some sites — began dismantling them in December and moving folks indoors, citing fire, exposure and other health risks.
Five people died outside in the past year from exposure to cold, injuries from a fire and untreated pre-existing medical conditions.
"We implemented a serious policy change. We do not believe ... living in tents is safe in Minnesota," said Ricardo Cervantes, director of St. Paul's Department of Safety and Inspections.
The decision to remove encampments initially stoked controversy, with some City Council members pointing to sanctioned tent cities in other parts of the country.
St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher acknowledged that anyone who was unwilling to move into a shelter could have relocated outside St. Paul, but said the city worked with each individual to connect them with services and find accommodations that worked for them.
Before 2020, nonprofits including Catholic Charities and Union Gospel Mission provided the bulk of homeless shelter accommodations in Ramsey County. Homeless numbers already had started surging in 2019, and the pandemic forced nonprofit providers to reduce shelter capacity so people living there could socially distance.
In response, Ramsey County leased a portion of a former hospital, an unoccupied dormitory at Luther Seminary, a vacant nonprofit building and dozens of hotel rooms to house homeless people.
Keith Lattimore, Ramsey County's first-ever director of housing stability, is overseeing these new efforts.
"Our goal is to get people inside," he said.
To do that, county staff has worked to address concerns about privacy, safety, COVID risk, property theft and other issues associated with homeless shelters that made many people prefer to sleep outdoors.
The shelter at Luther Seminary, which has 80 private rooms, allows both straight and same-sex couples to stay together. About 125 homeless seniors, who often may feel vulnerable in traditional shelter settings, are now staying in hotel rooms at the Best Western Plus Capitol Ridge near downtown St. Paul.
The county leased a portion of the old Bethesda Hospital just north of the Capitol in December 2020 and 100 men now live there, each with a private room and bathroom.
The men are connected to county and nonprofit services, which can include help accessing veterans' benefits, finding a permanent place to live, getting a job or navigating treatment for mental health and substance abuse.
Bethesda offers a community garden, game nights, and weekly art, yoga and boot camp classes. Holidays are celebrated and efforts are made to serve foods from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
Lattimore said helping people move indoors and eventually into permanent housing is important equity work.
"A lot of the individuals here look like me," said Lattimore, who is Black. "Fifty percent of people in encampments were African Americans."
A bad breakup coupled with a shoulder injury left Abe Franklin unemployed and homeless last year — his second time becoming homeless, he said. He moved into Bethesda, where he is recovering from shoulder surgery and contemplating his next move.
"I want to go back into health care. I liked helping people," said Franklin, who worked as an in-home support professional before his injury.
Franklin said Bethesda has been a positive experience — a respite for him. He spends a lot of time tending the community garden.
The private rooms are nice, he said, but it's the attitude of staff that makes Bethesda different from other shelters.
"I like that the people are nice and helpful," Franklin said.
Wendy Underwood, vice president for social justice advocacy and engagement with Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the organization is pleased and relieved that the city and county are providing temporary services and shelter. Catholic Charities' downtown St. Paul shelter, Higher Ground, was over capacity even before the pandemic, she said.
"They have made a huge difference in helping individuals have that safe space and distancing while still having access to resources," Underwood said.
She applauded the county's investments in long-term affordable housing but said they also need to plan carefully: Many of the leases on temporary shelters expire next spring — well before any new affordable housing will be built and occupied.
Last week, the County Board allocated $37 million of its $108 million from the federal American Rescue Plan to affordable housing, including the construction of multifamily rental housing affordable to those making less than 30% of the area median income.
With St. Paul's blessing, the county is activating its Housing and Redevelopment Authority levy in 2022, which will raise an estimated $11 million a year that can be used for affordable housing.
County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter said she and her colleagues, along with city leaders, are committed to finding long-term solutions to the housing shortage.
"It's about making sure we are not just finding beds, but we are working our way towards helping people find permanent homes," she said.
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037