County, nonprofits partner to safeguard homeless

Photo by Analise Pruni

According to Ramsey County’s HMIS (Homeless Management Information System), a database system used to count the number of people using emergency shelters annually, roughly 3,300 people experienced homelessness in Ramsey County in 2019. In 2020, already vulnerable unsheltered people are now dealing with the added fear of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we bring the crisis from the lens of homelessness, we already know that people who experience homelessness face extraordinary barriers in their daily life,” said Max Holdhusen, Ramsey County’s housing stability manager.

Everyday struggles such as addiction, trauma and mental health issues are now being compounded with tight living spaces in shelters. “From a pandemic perspective, that dense congregated setting is really dangerous,” Holdhusen said.

The Ramsey County Board allocated up to $1.8 million on March 17 to focus on reducing the potential spread of COVID-19 at area homeless shelters. According to a press release from Ramsey County Manager Ryan O’Connor, as part of these efforts, “On March 27, Ramsey County and its partners opened a respite facility at Catholic Charities’ former Mary Hall location near downtown Saint Paul. 

The facility accommodates up to 140 people showing COVID-19 symptoms who are referred from the primary shelter facilities in the East Metro: Catholic Charities Higher Ground, Union Gospel Mission, and the Safe Space facility at Ramsey County Government Center East.” 

Holdhusen noted that “Mary Hall is a non-medical facility, so the nurses’ job there is really to do the initial intake, monitor symptoms, and do daily temperature checks, because we know that fever is a common symptom of COVID-19.” If someone’s condition at Mary Hall were to worsen, they are then sent to the emergency room. 

Another part of this initiative includes a partnership between Ramsey County staff, Catholic Charities, City of St. Paul staff, and a local hotel to provide 60 rooms for homeless elders aged 60 and up. They were moved from the Higher Ground shelter at the end of March and beginning of April.

“Most or many of them have other chronic health conditions which makes them even more vulnerable to COVID-19,” Holdhusen said, “whether that’s heart, lung, or an autoimmune condition that has been deemed by the CDC and public health agencies as risk factors for COVID-19.”

He noted that while they are actively working on increasing the number of rooms, a true dispersion of the shelter populations reduced by 50%-75% “would require about 400 rooms, so we are attempting to scale up as best we can.”

Melea Blanchard is the program supervisor for Catholic Charities’ Homeless Elders Program and helped facilitate the relocation. “Keeping people safe as long as we can here at the hotel, it just gives people a better chance at being healthy to continue to have their own space,” he said.

 “We hope to continue this as long as we can until there is less of a risk out in the community. Ramsey County provided the funding to pay for hotel space as well as three meals a day, which is through the hotel food service, which is great because they’re able to bring some workers back.”

She noted that at the Catholic Charities facilities, added sanitation, hand-washing stations, temperature checks for everyone going in and out, and donated face coverings were all part of precautions being taken to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Despite these efforts, some unsheltered folks grapple with the decision of risking exposure in the shelters or staying on the streets. I talked to a man named Carlos about this who was walking down the sidewalk in front of the Higher Ground shelter where he’d been staying off and on for the last several months.

Photo by Analise Pruni Carlos

“I just found out yesterday that somebody was in here had the full-blown coronavirus,” Carlos said. “If I didn’t have to stay here I wouldn’t. They tell you to separate, but a lot of people here, they don’t read that.” 

Carlos said you could get masks by request and he had asked for one the last several nights. However, between the fear of catching the virus and the “drama” he experienced amongst the people staying in the shelter, Carlos mused that he might just sleep on the street.

“I talked with a couple of workers and they said there’s more they can do as far as keeping us who are staying inside [the shelter] safer, than those outside,” Carlos said. “But you still get nervous.”

That same day near the Higher Ground facility, a man named Bruce leaned against a green city sidewalk railing. While many unsheltered individuals fear contracting the virus, some, like Bruce, continue their daily lives as usual.

“What I believe in is if God has something for you, no man can actually deny it, and if God wants to deny you something, no man can grant it. But death is actually inevitable,” Bruce said. “Seriously, a mask and a pair of gloves is supposed to save me from a virus?”

Bruce had previously stayed at the old Dorothy Day shelter and later at Higher Ground Lately he had been living in a tent near the highway. 

“They say it [the corona virus] exists, but you have no information on it,” he added with frustration. “It’s a lockdown on not just a city or a state or a country, but basically the world.”