“Never waste a crisis” is a quote we sometimes hear as COVID-19 continues to ravage our communities. A quick Google search suggests Dr. M.F. Weiner coined the phrase in 1976 in an article describing how a physician should use a medical crisis to help the patient holistically, both physically and psychologically, to do more than merely respond to the most immediate problem.
The quote is entirely apropos to what Hennepin County faces today with COVID-19. The County Board must heed the good doctor’s advice and use this crisis to seek permanent changes to emerge a more humane, responsive and efficient county. The board is currently exploring many exciting options. Here are five proposals I find most compelling:
1) Single room occupancy (SRO) housing for those needing it. As we have worked to reduce congregation in the shelters to prevent the spread of the virus, it is clear that we need more low-income housing options. Too many have been living unsheltered or precariously sheltered for too long — especially since the Drake Hotel and its 146 units burned.
Long maligned, the Drake served an important role as a pay-for-stay facility. It should be replaced by smaller SRO buildings that have basic security and the capacity to refer residents for social services. Many homeless folks have earned income or social security. They need a $300- to $400-per-month room with, at minimum, a bed and a door until their situation improves.
2) Expand online social services and close some county buildings. Candidly, we have been too slow in adapting to using cellphones for all manner of transactions. No matter their socioeconomic status, nearly everyone has a cellphone. The pandemic has revealed that clients can use their phones to apply for needed services and receive timely approvals.
With the right innovations we can end the need for lobby waiting for the vast majority of clients, and at the same time reduce the county’s office space footprint. Those savings will be significant. The emergency waivers granted by Gov. Tim Walz should be made permanent so we can implement these changes.
3) Get county-involved youths better online access. With schools closed, devices and connectivity are the new order of education business. A few school districts are not yet ready with devices, and wireless access is another obstacle for many who have a school-issued tablet or laptop. For young people on county caseloads, we must get them devices and access. Idle time will simply not translate into acceptable educational achievement.
4) End the tolerance for encampments. At present there are more than 70 encampments that have been established on public land. More than two dozen are on county property. Until recently there has been a moratorium against removing the encampments due to irrational fears of spreading the virus further. Encampments are not acceptable.
Open drug use, drug overdoses, terribly unsafe hygiene, criminal behavior including sexual assaults have all been documented. Some advocates suggest there is a legitimate culture concerning encampments or that the shelter system is over capacity. Neither is true. While the shelter system may be strained, as noted above, there is still room. The notion that an encampment is superior to a shelter is ridiculous and they must end.
5) Dramatically modernize library services. Closing our libraries on March 17 was among the most difficult, yet necessary, decisions we made early in the crisis. It has become clear that our system of delivering library services will never be the same. The future must see increased investment in technology, connectivity, e-books and other online materials. It is also time to revisit hours and staffing, ensuring that all generations of patrons are able to access libraries on their schedules.
Hennepin County and all of Minnesota are currently and rightly deep into crisis mode. Many previously impossible responses are now underway and more are planned. County staff are demonstrating great creativity that must not be wasted.
The actions above and likely more yet to be considered will ensure that we seize the gains born of grace under pressure and the recognition of societal changes that we have not fully appreciated to date. Amid all the terrible costs COVID-19 has brought us, let’s not let “failure to improve” be on the list.
Mike Opat is a Hennepin County commissioner.