Hennepin County provides a variety of resources and services for homeless residents, and the coronavirus pandemic has added to the county’s challenges in providing that assistance.
The county is using several hotels, including two in Bloomington, that are providing housing for the homeless. The county provides 24-hour security at the hotels and has stringent rules for those who are staying there under the county’s watch, according to Hennepin County Commissioner Debbie Goettel.
The occupants tend to be an older clientele whose health is at risk should they contract COVID-19, she noted.
The long-term lease agreements between the county and hotels is funded through the CARES Act, the federal stimulus bill intended to offset the economic effects of the pandemic. In addition to providing shelter, the county’s efforts include providing personal protective equipment, food and county staffing to assist with issues, from finding long-term housing solutions to dealing with mental health issues, Goettel explained.
The county spends approximately $140 million annually for housing stability, and said there’s concern about how sheltering the homeless population will continue if federal assistance is no longer available come January, a concern that is not new to the county.
“We were falling behind before the pandemic,” Goettel said, suggesting the state could see a humanitarian crisis when the governor’s moratorium on evictions.
The county is working toward solutions to affordable housing and homelessness, but those solutions take both time and money, and take more than the county’s resources. A statewide plan that aligns the metro area is critical, according to Goettel. “We are talking,” she said.
In addition to Hennepin County’s leasing of hotel space in Bloomington, St. Stephen’s Human Services, a nonprofit organization that has operated an emergency shelter in Minneapolis since 1981, has used hotel rooms at Bloomington’s Comfort Inn for pandemic sheltering.
The pandemic created a twofold problem. The organization’s two shelters traditionally closed each morning and reopened in the evening. But the pandemic closed many places that shelter guests could during the day, according to Mike Huffman, the director of outreach and shelter for St. Stephen’s.
The shelters have become 24-hour operations, providing three meals per day, but they are too small to allow for physical distancing for the number of guests they had been housing. The St. Stephen’s shelters are among five in Hennepin County’s Adult Shelter Collaborative that sought hotel rooms as part of a coordinated response to the pandemic, Huffman explained.
St. Stephen’s received its first round of funding from the state’s Office of Economic Opportunity in April, allowing the organization to set up shelter at Comfort Inn. The location was beneficial for its access to transit services, which guests use to meet employment, medical and other needs, according to Huffman.
St. Stephen’s made attempts to notify the Bloomington Police Department of its plans, he said.
The hotel beds are allocated to people who are most medically vulnerable to COVID-19, or to sleeping outdoors. To date, 76 individuals staying in St. Stephen’s hotel rooms have been age 55 or older. Although there have been challenges operating a shelter program within a hotel, 23 individuals have moved out of the hotel and into stable housing, Huffman noted.
St. Stephen’s guests have had no COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, and many guests have obtained employment because of their 24-hour access to a private room, he added.
A minimum of three program staff are available every shift to assist guests with resources, referrals and support, and a part-time social worker focuses exclusively on housing. The hotel has on-site security personnel for evening and overnight hours, according to Huffman.
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