Hennepin County shelter response update,
Friday, June 26, 2020
Hennepin County has been preparing to prevent and respond to the spread of COVID-19 among our most vulnerable residents, including those experiencing homelessness. The county continues to work with several area hotels and service providers to provide alternate housing for high-risk and sick residents who cannot isolate on their own.
Hennepin County first acted to establish alternative accommodations for high-risk residents at area hotels on Tuesday, March 17. To date, the county has allocated more than $6 million for protective and isolation housing for vulnerable residents.
The number of people we are supporting in protective housing facilities remains at about 500. We are continuing our work with residents to transition from the hotel into permanent housing. The hotel program is a crisis response to COVID-19 and is not sustainable indefinitely but our goal is that none will return to shelter and our goal for everyone remains that they should have their own housing.
As we continue to absorb this work into our new normal way of doing business, we are planning to transition this newsletter from weekly to an as-needed schedule.
Responding to encampment queries
As a result of deep community concern about the growing encampment at Powderhorn Park Office to End Homelessness Director David Hewitt has received hundreds of emails from residents. We thought you would be interested to see the email he sent in response to some of those who contacted him:
Thank you for your email about Powderhorn Park. We are deploying our Healthcare for the Homeless team to provide health supports to people at Powderhorn Park and other encampments across the city. Our Homeless Access and non-profit outreach teams are similarly working in Powderhorn Park and other encampments. They will attempt to connect people to openings in housing, shelter and other services but that is hard, person-by-person work. Further, as I described at the Parks Board meeting last night (and so you may have heard already – apologies if so), all of our staff and services have been stretched beyond anything we’ve ever known after standing up, staffing and maintaining hundreds of units of protective and isolation space since the days that followed the State of Emergency declaration and converting our entire homeless and housing system to be responsive to COVID-19.
I want to take the time to share with you what’s been happening and my perspective on things. That does mean this will be rather a long e-mail but I hope it is of use and some interest. Mostly, I want to let you know that we share the same goals. Housing is a human right and the most basic need for anyone to build a stable and healthy life. Increasing affordable housing is the only way to end homelessness in our communities. Ultimately, our aim is to connect every person experiencing homelessness to affordable permanent housing. That is a lofty but absolutely necessary goal.
Responding to COVID-19
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is particularly threatening to our most vulnerable neighbors. Since mid-March, Hennepin County has spent $6 million to provide protective and isolation housing at five area hotels, for people experiencing homelessness who are at high-risk of death if they contract COVID-19, and separate hotels for people who have tested positive or are awaiting test results that cannot safely self-isolate on their own.
We acted swiftly to stand up these critical havens for people experiencing homelessness. It is because of these efforts that we have not seen tragic outbreaks in our homeless community as many other urban centers across the country have experienced. The first buses started moving anyone aged 60+ and experiencing homelessness to hastily arranged and staffed hotel sites in the days following the Emergency Declaration more than three months ago. Right now there are 529 seniors and medically vulnerable people that are being sheltered in fully staffed, supportive hotel sites as a result of these early interventions. We are working on permanent housing with the goal that none return to shelter or the streets (where, we can all agree, they should never have been in the first place).
In addition, Hennepin County participated in the state-led effort to move about 130 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness from the Sabo Bridge, Stevens and Cedar encampments (also offered to folks on the Greenway) near the civil unrest in Minneapolis to two area hotels being leased and managed by Avivo and Start Today. These efforts are being funded through amended Housing Support agreements with Hennepin County and the Regional Metro Committee. Over the past two weeks, 14 people have already been moved from these hotels to permanent housing.
Making shelters safer
These actions taken together have led to the largest and safest shelter system we have ever had in Hennepin County. Today, including the most recent encampment evacuation hotel sites, there are:
- About 1,130 spaces in use for single adults experiencing homelessness in Hennepin County
- Two-thirds of these spaces are individual separate rooms
- All of these spaces are available for guests to use 24 hours a day, seven days a week
Three months ago, there were:
- About 930 emergency shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness in Hennepin County
- All of these beds were in congregate settings with as many as 130 people in one room in the largest setting
- Only 180 spaces were available 24/7
Additionally, our family system still operates under a right-to-shelter for families with children and we have plenty of capacity to serve and shelter more families. I am personally very proud of all of this work. Mass testing at both our family shelter and one of our hotel sites last week found zero COVID+ test results for guests and staff. As of last Friday there had been a total of 114 COVID+ cases among people experiencing homelessness in the entire State (as per MDH website). While there is still a long road ahead of us, positive cases among people experiencing homelessness stayed flat thus far and have been declining steadily in recent weeks.
This effort has required unprecedented levels of funding. Hennepin County and partner staff have volunteered to be redeployed from their current work to offer support and step into roles they’ve never held before. This response has stretched our capacity and that of our nonprofit partners to a level that is unsustainable without additional support. Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis requested additional state support and communicated to the State Emergency Operations Center that we could not safely stand up additional capacity. That was on May 13, before the murder of George Floyd and the resulting uprising that has created even greater need.
Helping people keep the homes they’re in
The economic impacts of COVID-19 are further threatening to exacerbate these challenges. To prepare for the risk of thousands of people newly threatened with homelessness, Hennepin County recently announced $15 million for rental assistance for low income households who cannot afford their housing costs due to COVID-19.
Please help us share this resource widely: hennepin.us/rent-help.
Protecting people in encampments
The hard truth is that all of these unprecedented efforts still fall woefully short of meeting the unprecedented need in our community. There are very real public health risks that are unavoidable in large concentrated encampments that must be considered in our collective response to this situation. As described above, we will continue to deploy our Healthcare for the Homeless team to provide health supports to people at Powderhorn Park and other encampments across the city. Our Homeless Access and outreach teams will similarly continue to work tirelessly to connect people to services and the shelter and housing that is available.
As I also shared, in my experience the larger encampments get, the more dangerous they become and that I believe this is especially true for those staying within them. I felt this way before COVID-19 (based on my experience of the Hiawatha-Franklin encampment) and even more so when there is a global pandemic that requires social distancing to keep vulnerable individuals and our community safe. The daily increases in the number of people at Powderhorn Park are also not accompanied by any commensurate reductions in the numbers of people in other encampments or in shelter in Hennepin or Ramsey County.
Underpinning all of this
I do want to call out the underlying causes, though I know this isn’t necessarily news. The housing crisis we face has only been compounded by COVID-19 and the recent social uprising in Minneapolis. Our lack of affordable housing does the most harm to people with very low incomes—those making 30% of the Area Median Income (or about $30,000 for a family of four). People of color are disproportionately represented in this group and even more disproportionately represented in who experiences homelessness. In Hennepin County:
- We have about 74,000 households who live in this income bracket.
- We have only about 14,000 units of subsidized housing in Hennepin County that are affordable for them.
- About 95% of people experiencing homelessness have incomes at or below this level, including many who are working full-time jobs.
The math is simple, people can’t afford housing and there is not nearly enough of it.
Working for immediate and long-term solutions – when the work is ‘normal’
Every year, we invest about $134 million, primarily state and federal funds, to support a range of affordable housing and shelter response strategies. This funding allows us to:
- Provide shelter for 9,000 people experiencing homelessness
- Help more than 7,500 residents who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness maintain or access permanent housing
- Support 15,000 people in supportive housing
- Create or preserve about 975 units of affordable housing
From the beginning of the year to the end of May, our community has moved more than 700 people in Hennepin County directly from homelessness into permanent housing. This work makes a difference for the people served but, unfortunately, it is not nearly enough.
Increasing supportive housing
Last year the Hennepin County board adopted a new strategy to proactively drive construction of 1,000 new units of housing affordable to those with the lowest income, including housing specifically designed for people who are chronically homeless or medically fragile.
This is an innovative 10-year strategy that the we estimate will cost the county $90 million and require continued investment from state and city funding partners. We have already awarded $6 million to fund seven new supportive housing projects which will create 212 physical units of housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness and people with severe addictions.
In case you are looking for further ways you can help
I understand you are already involved in practical efforts on the ground which are desperately needed and so appreciated. Still, people often ask me ‘what can I do to help’ and so I wanted to answer that question to the best of my ability also. These challenges require all of us working together with the urgency that the moment requires. Here are a few things you can do right now to help.
- Keep advocating: Given I am responding to your advocacy, this can likely go unsaid. Still: Join forces with established efforts to increase housing stability in our community. Check out the Homes for All Campaign, MN Coalition for the Homeless, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Please continue to reach out to your state and federal representatives, as well as your city and county elected leaders and let them know we need immediate funding and action to address homelessness in our communities.
- Volunteer: Many organizations lost volunteers when the pandemic started. Organizations need volunteers now more than ever — you are likely connected with your local non-profits but otherwise Handsontwincities.org is a good place to start.
- Donate: Nonprofits who are providing shelter and essential services to people experiencing homelessness are facing dire financial constraints at a time when their services are more needed than ever. Hennepin County is doing everything we can to increase funding, but your donations are badly needed, too.
- Educate: In order to take decisive and effective action together, having a sound understanding of the challenges we face together is crucial. The National Alliance to End Homelessness is a good resource to help educate your friends, family, and neighbors on solutions to end homelessness. You can also find great statistical information for Minnesota at Wilder Research.
I believe passionately in this work. I understand that you do too. I believe it requires good faith collaboration and strong partnerships across government agencies, the public and private sectors and, especially, community and people with lived experience of homelessness. I also believe that both shelters and encampments are not acceptable solutions; only housing is.
As you might imagine, I am receiving a lot of e-mails right now. That limits my responsiveness but as you reached out to me directly I wanted to get back to you.
Office to End Homelessness, Director
Legal guidance and resources for renters
While evictions are not currently allowed under Governor Walz's Peacetime Emergency order, rent is still due. LawHelpMN.org has compiled helpful information about renters' rights during the pandemic and has legal aid available for tenants. Learn more
Hennepin County resource helpline
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If you're affected by COVID-19, you can call this number for help with clothing, financial assistance, grocery and household supplies, medical care and equipment, or medication.