The homeless populations that are relying upon Bloomington hotels for shelter during the coronavirus pandemic are expected to remain there through at least the end of the year, the Bloomington City Council has learned.
The long-term plans to address the challenges faced by homeless residents of the Twin Cities were among several topics discussed during the council’s Sept. 14 meeting. The discussion was prompted in part by resident concerns about the increase in pedestrian traffic and police calls as a result of some city hotels serving as shelters, providing social distancing during the pandemic that is often lacking in traditional shelter facilities .
Police Chief Jeff Potts detailed the service call volumes for hotels that are or were being used to shelter homeless populations. The Comfort Inn, which has generated the most service calls from March 1 through Sept. 9, had 493 calls. During the same period in 2019, the hotel generated 107 calls.
The second highest call volume came from Super 8, which had 371 calls from March through Sept. 9, nearly double its total in 2019.
The largest increase by percentage was at Holiday Inn Express at 94th Street and Interstate 35W. Its call total during the six-month span was 174, up from 26 during 2019. The Holiday Inn Airport generated 147 calls, about double the call volume during the previous year.
The Holiday Inns are under contract with Hennepin County, which is using the hotels primarily to house seniors who may have medical needs and are having difficulty finding affordable housing due to income limitations, according to Heather Worthington, the city’s interim community development director.
The service calls generated by the Holiday Inns have leveled off since the hotels were put to use as homeless shelters, according to Potts, but that has not been the case at other hotels. Potts was uncertain if organizations are continuing to use hotels such as Super 8 for homeless shelters, and noted that the police department is working with St. Stephen’s Human Services, the nonprofit organization overseeing the homeless residents at Comfort Inn, and the hotel’s management to address issues at the building.
Potts said that the police department has increased its presence around hotels where service calls have increased, has issued crime alerts to residents and businesses where necessary, has set up portable camera systems to deter crime in areas and initiates community engagement activities to deter crime, which is challenging due to the in-person restrictions during the pandemic.
The hotels provide the rooms through long-term contracts, according to City Manager Jamie Verbrugge. The contracts are similar to agreements hotels make with airlines that require ongoing accommodations for their staff. The city does not collect lodging taxes on those rooms, and does not control the ability of hotels to enter into such contracts, he noted.
Hotels have different land use approvals, however, and hotels intended for extended stays tend to have an approval for such use by the city. Not all hotels contracting long-term room leases have that land approval, according to Verbrugge, but the contracts are occurring during extraordinary circumstances during which the governor has asked cities to provide regulatory flexibility.
Hotels being granted the flexibility are not managing that flexibility as well as they should be, Verbrugge said, but the police department’s work with the hotels has improved the situation, he explained.
The city has no involvement in the contracts, but the county informed the city that it was negotiating with Bloomington hotels to provide shelter alternatives. The city was not informed of other agreements that have been made, according to Verbrugge.
Homeless residents seeking shelter in Bloomington hotels are not always affiliated with the county or a nonprofit organization, Worthington noted. Living options are limited for low-income renters, and the least expensive apartment in Bloomington rents for approximately $850, she said. Reduced rates at hotels because of the downturn in travel since the onset of the pandemic have resulted in rates as low as $20 per night, she said.
The police department’s crime prevention division has worked with hotels offering low room rates to improve the accountability of both the hotels and those renting rooms. Improvements to the registration process and prohibiting cash payments for room rentals were two examples Potts cited.
The police department has maintained its ability to serve and respond to calls around the city despite the increase in calls related to hotels, but the call volume has been taxing on the department, Potts noted.
Indications from both the county and St. Stephen’s Human Services are that they are planning to continue to use Bloomington hotels through the end of the year as they look for long-term solutions. Councilmember Jenna Carter said that Bloomington is dealing with an acute problem, but the underlying issues are longstanding and need to be addressed by the county and state. The city’s concern should not be simply pushing the problem elsewhere, she explained.
Councilmember Jack Baloga suggested that homelessness would be worse at the end of the year with the onset of winter. Worthington said that as the county and St. Stephen’s look toward solutions for the homeless population, they may need an interim plan to get through the winter.
Video of the council’s discussion is available online at tr.im/91420.
Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.