Ramsey County shuts down one emergency hotel homeless shelter, second closure imminent – Twin Cities

Whether by choice or without, Anthony Johnson has been there on the side of those experiencing homelessness.

For the past 15 months, he’s been among Ramsey County employees working at Best Western Capitol Ridge, a COVID-19 emergency shelter for the homeless near downtown St. Paul that the county set up in July last year for those age 55 and older. As a shelter wellness aide, Johnson’s job is to make sure residents have what they need during their stay, whether it’s a trip to the grocery store or a daily COVID temperature check.

Johnson said he could communicate, because he, too, was homeless and turned to Capitol Ridge for shelter. Shortly after arriving at the Twin Cities from Chicago in 2019, the 63-year-old resided on the upper ground of Catholic Charities in St. Paul. Eventually he got a hotel room, then worked full time there.

“I am grateful. I thank God every day,” said Johnson, who now owns an apartment in downtown St. Paul. “That’s why I’m determined to help all of these people get what they need. Who is a better advocate for the homeless than someone who has been among them? That’s why I’m here, doing what I do.”

However, work on Capitol Ridge is nearing completion, as the county has decided to close the 125-room shelter on November 30. The shutdown will come after the end of Sept. 30 from the county’s other temporary hotel shelter, the 80-room. Best Western Como Park, which used to house women and couples. Like Capitol Ridge, it also opened in July 2020 and has been near or full capacity for its entirety.

County officials say closing hotel shelters makes sense both operationally and financially, and that trying to provide a safe place for everyone remains at the heart of their response to homelessness during the pandemic. The county went to great lengths in the spring of 2020 as homelessness agencies in the area reduced capacity at their shelters due to social distancing guidelines. Many of these people without housing ended up in temporary shelters.

$913,000 a month

Paul’s other emergency shelters — Mary Hall at the former Dorothy Day Center, Stub Hall at Luther Seminary and the former Bethesda Hospital — all have space to accommodate some of those who have been in hotels, the county says.

They note that both Upper Earth and St. Paul’s Anglican Mission have begun to increase capacity, which has diminished in mid-2020 due to social distancing. The District Safe Space Shelter in St. Paul also continues to provide overnight emergency shelter for up to 64 adults.

By closing hotel shelters, Ramsey County could expand $26 million in federal COVID-19 funds that have been earmarked to address homelessness during the pandemic and have since dried up, said Keith Lattimore, director of housing stabilization. The county was initially on the verge of closing all five temporary shelters last spring, he said, but the ongoing pandemic has changed the plan into a plan to save dollars by “incorporating family space to meet what we really need.”

So the county informed the two hotels that they were opting out of the leases, which were due to expire next May. To administer the shelters, the county spent an average of $913,000 in federal funds each month — a number that includes leases, feeding residents three meals a day and other daily expenses such as paying employees to be on site and providing stable, long-term housing and other services.

Lattimore said no one would end up on the streets if he didn’t want to. Housing stabilization staff worked to find the hotel’s 175 former residents — about 30 of whom remained at Capitol Ridge — either permanent housing or a place to stay at other shelters.

“And some found their own places,” Lattimore said. “We cannot oblige where they go. But no one goes without an offer to go somewhere else.”

What other countries are doing

Dakota and Hennepin counties have also partnered with hotels during the pandemic to provide rooms for people without housing. They point to the concern that those experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of serious complications from COVID due to the underlying sanitary conditions and the congregation of many permanent shelters. Meanwhile, hotels have welcomed the business.

Since March 2020, Hennepin County has funded protective shelters at four hotels in Minneapolis and Bloomington, housing 800 seniors and medically vulnerable people. The city even considered buying Extended Stay America in Bloomington in late 2020. The county decided not to go ahead with the $13.3 million purchase, citing timing restrictions associated with federal coronavirus funding and the complexity of the deal.

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