Homeless people in Minnesota and across the country have become double victims to the coronavirus, left stranded in daytime as public places close and consigned at night to crowded shelters that are prime spots for contagion to spread.
The Hennepin County Board has approved $3 million to quarantine at-risk homeless, and officials have begun moving older homeless residents from shelters to hotels regardless of whether they’re sick.
Ramsey County will use up to $1.8 million from its general contingency account to set up two new quarantine and isolation facilities for the homeless.
Similar measures are being taken elsewhere, as alarms sound about the potentially devastating consequences of COVID-19 on the nearly 570,000 Americans without a place to live.
The governor of California, which accounts for a quarter of the nation’s homeless, has announced plans to procure hotel rooms to provide shelter. Over the past week, a homeless man from Santa Clara County in California died of the virus, and another has tested positive in New York City.
As the number of cases in Minnesota again spiked Wednesday, shelters in Minneapolis reported that some homeless people were showing symptoms of the respiratory illness and being sent to hospitals, though officials said no cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed among the state’s homeless population.
Workers at shelters have expressed concern about a lack of supplies, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, to prevent the spread of the disease.
“This is something that is way out of my lane,” said David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. “We are leaning on housing and public health officials to get all the information we need.”
Ramsey County is targeting two facilities in St. Paul to quarantine and isolate homeless people with the virus, including the recently closed Boys Totem Town facility, said Max Holdhusen, the county’s manager for housing stability. At one of the county’s three shelters, people have been allowed to stay in rooms not usually in use.
Kim Randolph, coordinator of the CHUM Center and Emergency Shelter in downtown Duluth, underscored the danger as she wove in and out of the packed dining room, a large spray bottle of sanitizer in hand.
“If someone comes in contact with [the coronavirus] and brings it here,” said Randolph, “then we’re in trouble.”
Nearly 8,000 Minnesotans experienced homelessness in 2019, up 10% from the previous year and the highest level in five years, according to an annual count by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
About 96,000 of the national homeless population are classified as chronically homeless, or without a home continuously for a year. Many are elderly, have underlying mental and physical health conditions, and lack access to public bathrooms, particularly now that facilities are closing. Those who find beds in emergency shelters typically sleep on cots or mats spaced just feet apart.
On an average night in Hennepin County, shelters house between 100 and 150 people age 60 and up. Older people or those with underlying illnesses are more susceptible to getting COVID-19.
At Tuesday’s Hennepin County Board meeting, Hewitt outlined a three-pronged strategy: accommodations for people who have tested positive for the virus or are waiting for test results, removal of the homeless at high risk from shelters, and continued support for housing and shelter programs. Temporary facilities could range from leased homes, apartments and trailers to county facilities, he said.
“This is changing and evolving so quickly,” Hewitt said.
The rapid closing of public places such as libraries, shopping malls and community centers also has left hundreds of homeless people across the state with nowhere to go during the day.
Carmen Aspling, 40, who has been homeless since January and has anxiety and depression, said she suffered “an extreme panic attack” on the second day after news broke that the virus was in Minnesota.
In the days after the outbreak, Aspling and her fiancé, John Sapp, who is also homeless, spent much of their time wandering the streets and stopping at various spots to rest. But all those facilities shut their doors this week, forcing the couple to stay inside a church shelter in south Minneapolis operated by Simpson Housing Services.
“I’ve resigned myself to the possibility that I may get the virus, and I am powerless to stop that,” Aspling said. “The only way to get through this is to live day to day and not dwell on what you can’t control.”
The abrupt closing of public facilities and cuts to overnight service on buses also has created an influx of new visitors to area shelters already at or near capacity. On Tuesday night, a temporary shelter operated by Elim Church in northeast Minneapolis had to turn away five people seeking a place to sleep. It was the first time that the small shelter in the church’s basement has turned anyone away since it opened in early February.
“To say to someone, ‘Hey, we don’t have the space,’ is really, really hard,” said Freddy Toran, a volunteer at the shelter. “These are people who are already not getting enough rest and have weakened immune systems.”
Staffers from St. Louis County and the city of Duluth were working this week to find spaces to isolate those without a home, whether in hotels, trailers or vacant storefronts. Until that happens, shelters in the area will remain cramped.
The CHUM shelter in Duluth bought out all the bandannas from a local apparel store to hand out to those passing through, encouraging them to cover their mouths and noses. Hand-sanitizing stations have been installed throughout the facility.
Michael Cockerham, 47, who has been homeless in Duluth since he moved out of a bad housing situation, said he thinks governments are “overreacting” to the outbreak. He came to CHUM for lunch Tuesday after he got kicked out of the mall, where he sometimes sits for a few hours during winter days.
“When all these decisions are being made to close all this stuff down, they need to think about us,” he said. “All of a sudden we’re nothing. So everybody else gets to go home and lock their door and be safe, and I get to walk up and down the street and catch a cold because everything is closed.”