An outstate Republican state senator and a Democratic House member have agreed to carry legislation to cover millions in operating costs for a network of Ramsey County emergency homeless shelters in hopes of preventing the return of large outdoor encampments in the capital city.

State Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, and Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, have authored companion bills that would allocate $14.5 million to the "Heading Home Ramsey Continuum of Care" each year for the next five years to keep open temporary shelters in St. Paul.

Leases on the county's four temporary homeless shelters, which housed as many as 450 men, women and children, expire this spring. Federal COVID aid used to pay for all these shelters in an old hospital, college dorm, nonprofit building and convent is running out.

Ramsey County leaders say they are approaching a "funding cliff" which could force people back out on the streets as soon as May.

"At the end of the day housing should not be a partisan issue. It's the idea that everyone deserves a place to rest their head at night," said Ramsey County Manager Ryan O'Connor. "If we all go back three years and remember the world in which we sat, we don't want to go back to that world particularly in a moment when there are many billions in the state's projected surplus at this time."

Ramsey County has spent more than $35 million in emergency federal COVID-19 aid to support expanded shelter needs throughout the COVID pandemic.

In addition, the county and St. Paul have committed more than $74 million of their combined federal COVID aid to create permanent affordable housing. The county has also begun collecting $11.5 million in property taxes annually under a Housing and Redevelopment Authority levy, which could be used, in part, to build and preserve affordable housing.

"For the last two years, Ramsey County has stepped forward to fund local solutions for a homelessness crisis that affects people and families from across Minnesota," said Ramsey County Chair Trista MatasCastillo, in a written statement. "This is a statewide issue, and we are asking for the state's partnership to continue to provide these services while we redirect our resources to build enough affordable housing to address this crisis long-term."

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is also championing the legislation.

"Our statewide housing crisis demands statewide solutions," Carter said in a written statement. "We are all counting on our legislature to pass this bipartisan funding bill."

Senjem said he took up a walking exercise regimen in the summer of 2020 at the start of the pandemic and saw firsthand the suffering in outdoor encampments near the Capitol, Interstate 35E and on the banks of the Mississippi River.

"You see the plight of these people. The plight of these people in winter is much more harsh," Senjem said. "It's 20-below and someone is sleeping under a bridge. We all think about and feel for these people and wonder how we can help."

Senjem, a retired Mayo Clinic administrator, said Ramsey County, the city of St. Paul and nonprofit partners have come up with a good plan. He said the need to help eclipses both geographic and political boundaries.

"Whether its Ramsey County, Minnesota or Rochester — I don't care where it is — we can do better than this," said Senjem, of the large homeless encampments that emerged across St. Paul and Minneapolis during the pandemic.

O'Connor has said the county wants to keep temporary shelters open for a few more years until more affordable housing is built and is available. O'Connor said the shelter at the old Bethesda Hospital site, which houses 100 men, will close this spring but he said plans are underway to replace those accommodations at other sites.

Even before COVID-19 struck, the Twin Cities region was grappling with surging homelessness. The east metro area relied largely on nonprofits Catholic Charities and Union Gospel Mission to provide shelter beds. The county added its "Safe Space" shelter as a year-round option in 2019.

After the number of homeless people living outdoors in St. Paul rose to nearly 400 in the summer of 2020, Ramsey County signed leases to create temporary shelters at the former Bethesda Hospital, Luther Seminary, Provincial House and Mary Hall. St. Paul established temporary shelters at community centers.

The number of people sleeping outdoors has dropped precipitously and has remained low, according to the city of St. Paul. As of March 16, St. Paul staff counted 26 people in encampments.