As an emergency shelter at the former Bethesda Hospital prepares to close next month, and with dedicated federal aid nearly spent, Ramsey County officials are counting on state lawmakers to bring stability to residents of St. Paul without permanent housing.
A substantial funding request to the Legislative Assembly has bipartisan support, but its prospects remain uncertain. Without new funding, county officials warn, the specter of homeless encampments could return to the capital.
“Yeah, that’s the reality,” said Keith Lattimore, director of the Ramsey County Housing Stability Department. “There are consequences if we don’t have the funds.”
CLOSING OF BETHESDA
The downtown Bethesda shelter, with 100 beds and room for 32 additional people with COVID-19, began operating Dec. 1, 2020. It is expected to close by the end of May when the lease expires of the county with Fairview Health Services, which owns the closed hospital north of the state capitol. Renewing the lease is not an option as Fairview plans to replace it with a new 144-bed mental health hospital at an estimated cost of $65 million.
There is no risk that 132 people will suddenly be thrown into the streets on May 31.
As of Wednesday, 73 people were living in Bethesda, as the county has already begun to scale back operations. Those who remain will be absorbed into the remaining network of government and non-profit shelters that operate in St. Paul.
“Nobody walks out of Bethesda to become homeless unless they want to,” Lattimore said.
Some have found employment and are ready for more permanent living conditions. Others will stay in hotels or shelters such as the Union Gospel Mission east of downtown, a former Luther Seminary dorm near Highway 280, or Catholic Charities’ Mary Hall on the center site. -city of the former Dorothy Day Center.
The current state of homeless services is closely linked to the coronavirus pandemic and how the government has responded to it.
The number of homeless people seeking short-term or long-term services has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. And due to the traditionally overcrowded state of the shelters, as well as the unsafe conditions in the outdoor encampments, St. Paul – like towns across the country – has had to significantly increase its capacity. Hotel rooms have been rented and new spaces have been created in places like Bethesda, which was a COVID-only hospital at the start of the pandemic before becoming an emergency homeless shelter.
“COVID really threw curveballs at us, and obviously we had to get creative,” Lattimore said. He and others working on housing say they have done a tremendous job serving more than 1,800 people since the pandemic began, 58% of whom are not from Ramsey County but gravitate here because services were available.
Much of this was made possible by tens of millions of dollars provided by the federal government through the CARES Act and the US bailout. In total, approximately $43 million was spent in Ramsey County.
Almost everything is gone, and as the money has dwindled, many COVID emergency shelters have closed. Yet so far the system has been able to absorb displaced residents, in part because the dangers of the pandemic have diminished and people can now shelter more densely.
$75 MILLION PLAN
The plan that has emerged to deal with long-term homelessness is called Coming home to Ramsey County.
This includes building more affordable housing across the city, but these aspirations will take years; officials say they are some 15,000 units short of where they want to be.
The medium-term plan — over the next five years — is to build a pair of 100-bed facilities, an intensive program to serve a few dozen people who have frequent contact with police and social workers, and a shelter day to provide means and showers that can accommodate up to 175 people per day.
It will take three to five years to build these facilities, so in the meantime officials are seeking immediate funding to maintain existing programs, at around $15 million per year.
In all, they want about $75 million from the state over the next five years.
Parts of that plan — including the most urgent funding needed to keep enough beds open this year and next — have attracted strong support from Democrats who control the Minnesota House. The legislation also gained the sponsorship of at least one Republican.
In the Republican-controlled Senate, a comparable plane was introduced by veteran Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and on Tuesday drew the signature of Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who chairs the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee.
They are powerful potential allies, but this is not a done deal. Republicans, as well as some Democrats, frequently express frustration that perennial plans to “end homelessness” in the Twin Cities are still failing.
There are now many avenues for the plan — or at least parts of it — to be approved in both houses and reach the office of Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat.
However, the legislature does not have to pass spending plans before it adjourns in May, and the politics are complex in an election year where every seat in every house, as well as the governor’s office, will be on the ballots in november.
Lattimore said he fears lawmakers’ inaction will have serious consequences for those without permanent housing.
“That’s what we all fear,” he said. “Obviously, if we don’t have the money, we will see people going back to homelessness. If we get less than we ask for, it could be like putting a bandage on a gaping wound.