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Ramsey County leaders are warning that widespread homeless encampments seen early in the pandemic could return to the capital city this summer unless state lawmakers step in.

Leases on the county's four temporary homeless shelters in St. Paul, which house about 450 men, women and children, expire this spring. Hotel programs for the homeless, first launched to allow for social distancing at shelters early in the pandemic, were phased out in November. Federal COVID aid used to pay for all these programs is dwindling.

"The money runs out and the leases are up in May. We are now really focused on building partnerships to help us come up with the money that's needed to continue this work," said Ramsey County Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo.

Ramsey County has spent more than $35 million of emergency levy and federal COVID-19 aid to support the expanded shelter needs throughout the COVID pandemic.

"If we don't find the financial resources, there will be 400 to 500 people outside each night, and many of them are children," MatasCastillo said.

The county, the city of St. Paul and other partners are seeking $72.5 million from the state — or $14.5 million annually for five years — to maintain the existing network of temporary homeless shelters. The county could explore extending leases on some properties but would also need to find some new locations, according to county staff.

"If we are not prepared and we haven't done our work here, it's a pretty big cliff as this funding runs out," Commissioner Jim McDonough said. McDonough co-chairs Heading Home Ramsey, a regional initiative between the county, city, nonprofits and businesses that aims to end homelessness.

In neighboring Hennepin County, leaders say they face a similar predicament.

"Hennepin County has been using one-time federal relief money, investing more than $92 million into shelter and housing-focused solutions for those experiencing homelessness. That funding runs out in 2024," Hennepin County Board Chair Marion Greene said in a statement. "We've made too many strides in the right direction to turn back now. In order to continue to support the most vulnerable in our community, the state stepping up as a funding partner is crucial."

Ramsey County and St. Paul have committed more than $74 million of their combined federal COVID aid to create permanent affordable housing. The county has also begun collecting $11.5 million in property taxes annually under a Housing and Redevelopment Authority levy, which could be used, in part, to build and preserve affordable housing.

But that housing likely won't be available for three to five years, MatasCastillo said.

"We have invested so much in new affordable housing but those projects take a little time," she said. "We have to have time to build those projects and get families moved in."

State lawmakers say they understand the stakes.

Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, said the state's projected $7.7 billion surplus should create room in the budget to fund temporary shelters and affordable housing.

"There is something perverse about having a $7.7 billion surplus while Minnesotans are sleeping out in the cold," said Howard, vice chair of the Housing Finance and Policy committee. "The Legislature does really have an opportunity and an obligation to invest state resources into the kinds of strategies and public policies that will help Minnesotans stay in their homes."

DFLers plan to introduce a housing package early this session with "significant investments across the spectrum of housing needs," Howard said.

State lawmakers and local leaders say Gov. Tim Walz's state bonding proposal, which includes $250 million for affordable housing infrastructure bonds and an additional $72 million for emergency shelters, is a promising overture. The governor is expected to release more details of his budget package, including a proposal on housing and homelessness, in the coming days.

Cathy ten Broeke, assistant commissioner of Minnesota's Interagency Council on Homelessness, said funding homelessness services and shelter programs has been a top priority. During the last two years, she said, additional spending on services for people experiencing homelessness reached $96 million; Ramsey County and its service providers got more than $11 million.

"We have really strong partners in the governor and the lieutenant governor," said St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher, who co-chairs Heading Home Ramsey. "We have really clear recommendations and planning work done, so we can say really clearly to the state: This is what we know we need. Can you help us?"

Those recommendations include maintaining existing beds for families, couples and single people until more permanent housing is built.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-Falcon Heights, said she supports Ramsey County's use of existing buildings for temporary shelters and Heading Home Ramsey's long game of investing in permanent housing.

"They are just stepping up in a significant way," Hausman said. "I want to be supportive of their efforts."

Even before COVID-19 struck, the Twin Cities region was grappling with surging homelessness. The east metro area relied largely on nonprofits Catholic Charities and Union Gospel Mission to provide shelter beds. The county added its "Safe Space" shelter as a year-round option in 2019.

After the number of homeless individuals living outdoors in St. Paul rose to nearly 400 in the summer of 2020, Ramsey County signed leases to create temporary shelters at the former Bethesda Hospital, Luther Seminary, Provincial House and Mary Hall. St. Paul established temporary shelters at community centers.

The increased number of beds allowed the St. Paul mayor's office to close several large encampments and help residents relocate to indoor accommodations. City staff said deaths from cold exposure and uncontrolled fires made encampments an unsafe option.

According to the city, there are 32 people sleeping outside at seven encampments in St. Paul. City and nonprofit outreach staff are in regular contact with them and helping them figure out options.

The expansion of Ramsey County's shelter network allowed the nonprofit Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul's Project Home to establish a 100-bed family shelter at Provincial House, a repurposed convent in Highland Park. More than half of those at the shelter are children under 13.

Before Ramsey County agreed to pay Project Home's lease through May, the organization relied on a rotation of 24 churches and synagogues to house 40 people. Executive Director Randi Ilyse Roth said the pandemic means that model no longer works.

Losing their current lease would be catastrophic to the program and the people it serves. she said. Families stay an average of 83 days. Social workers help them find jobs, housing and child care and start a savings account.

"These are real families with children trying to navigate school, jobs, transportation and child care," Roth said. "They need this respite and this infusion of support services."