With more outdoor tent camps cropping up around the metro, the already difficult problem of homelessness has grown worse during the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the past few weeks, a once small encampment in south Minneapolis has grown to about 100 homeless people near Hiawatha Avenue. And officials report that there are now more than 80 encampments in St. Paul — including one that is also growing near the Minnesota History Center grounds.
Between Ramsey and Hennepin counties, officials estimate that several hundred people are living in outdoor encampments — some because they feel safer and less likely to catch the virus than they would at a shelter where physical distancing is almost impossible. Others prefer being outside because of the freedom from shelter rules.
But, sadly, the spread of the camps can contribute to the spread of the virus. So current efforts to clear the encampments and find appropriate indoor shelter for the homeless must be supported and expanded. Conditions in the camps make them ripe to become hot spots.
To address those issues, commissioners from Ramsey and Hennepin counties, along with the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, have asked the state for COVID-19-related funding and personnel to mount a regional response. They’ve also been working with nonprofits and businesses to reduce the populations of existing shelters to promote social distancing.
Both counties have moved several hundred homeless people from shelters and are supporting them in hotels. And they have set up isolation sites for those who have either displayed symptoms or tested positive for the virus.
But those efforts have primarily reached people in shelters. They need to be extended to those in tent camps.
Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, who is leading a homelessness work group made up of public officials, told an editorial writer that the pandemic has exacerbated an already difficult problem. The pandemic has reduced the number of places for the homeless to go, she said. More physical space and staffing is needed to oversee scattered sites that now include hotels.
And Tim Marx, president and CEO Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis (which operates Dorothy Day and other shelters) likened existing shelters to “field hospitals” providing health care for the poor. He said that consideration should be given to using some of the public spaces that are now empty because of the pandemic.
Looking to the post-COVID future, Marx said, the region should not go back to the “bad old days” of cramming too many people into shelters and “making them more unhealthy again.”
For now camps are a critical focus because they pose a health threat not only for the occupants but also the wider community.