ST PAUL, Minnesota — Advocates for Minnesota's homeless say more support is needed to protect this vulnerable population during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a virtual news conference on Thursday morning, many statewide homeless service providers and advocates addressed the challenges they're facing.
"Our assumption is once we do get a case of COVID-19 in the shelter, that it's going to spread like wildfire," said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services.
A new study by Wilder Research estimates that nearly 20,000 Minnesotans were homeless on any given night in 2018. Homelessness increased by 10% between 2015-2018.
Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said they have been spending an extra $250,000 per week since the outbreak.
"Social distancing, sanitary conditions and other things that keep people safe from the virus and keep them from spreading the virus, simply are very difficult—if not impossible—to make happen in our shelters," Marx said. "With people on bunks on top of each other, on mats ... very few feet apart, lack of adequate sanitation. Although we are doing the best we can and investing heavily in that increased sanitation, our staff are at risk and we're seeing some shortages in our own staffing."
The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless (MCH) is advocating for shelter and housing providers to be eligible providers for any COVID-19 Emergency Funds.
"We are operating field hospitals for the poor," Marx said.
Rhonda Otteson, MCH executive director, added, "Shelter and housing providers should be eligible providers under the healthcare funding ... they are on the front line of providing services to those most at-risk populations."
According to the Wilder Research study, since 2015 there has been a 25% increase in adults 55 and older experiencing homelessness and about 57& of adults experiencing homelessness have a chronic physical health condition.
Advocates say they need to get those most at risk out of shelters and into temporary housing, like hotels.
"I'm asking for your help in funding so that we may have a place for people to be during the day. That unsheltered people may have a place to be inside. That those who are inside, may be spread out into different rooms... so that staff and guests do not infect each other or pass this on to the public," said Monica Nilsson, director of Elim Church & Strong Tower Parish Shelters.
Another concern is that MN Homeless Fund grantees only received funding for the cold months and many will close soon without additional resources.
Thursday, the Minnesota House passed a COVID-19 response bill that includes $26.5 million to help the homeless. But those part of the virtual press conference said it will help but it's going to take much more.
Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and Homes for All have advocated for $50 million for shelters and $100 million for rental assistance. MCH is concerned more people will be experiencing homelessness due to COVID-19's economic impact.
Starting Friday, a respite facility is opening in Ramsey County for unsheltered adults displaying symptoms of COVID-19. Mary Hall (at the former Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul) will provide 24/7 symptom monitoring, meals, security and transportation to and from the site for those experiencing homelessness.
The location can accommodate up to 140 people. Ramsey County is also working on a second site at Kohler Hall on the shuttered 72-acre Boys Totem Town location in the Battle Creek neighborhood of St. Paul.
"We're still waiting on some additional support in terms of PPE testing equipment from our federal and state partners and we hope that that will arrive soon," said Reuben Moore, CEO of Minnesota Community Care, who was selected to staff the facilities.
While all of these efforts would help them slow the spread of COVID-19, advocates say there's also a need for more long-term solutions.
Nilsson said, "Emergencies cost more than stability and providing these emergency services very expensively wouldn't have to happen if people had housing."
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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
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