Metro counties have spent roughly $5 million to rent hotel rooms as emergency shelters to protect the homeless and other vulnerable people from the spread of COVID-19.
Contracts and invoices obtained through public records requests show a county-by-county patchwork of efforts to find and pay for lodging, transportation, food and other services for hundreds of unsheltered people in the seven-county metro, all within a matter of weeks.
“This crisis has ignited an urgency in why individuals should not be living in congregate settings,” said Chris Michels, director of housing stability and opportunity for Catholic Charities. “It has been a whirlwind.”
County officials, too, say the scale and speed of the emergency sheltering effort is unlike any in recent memory.
“It’s really been unprecedented,” said Dan Rogan, assistant Hennepin County administrator. The county is “not traditionally in the hotel business, and we now find ourselves in that.”
With no clear end to the pandemic in sight — and the need for shelter only expected to grow — county officials are trying to balance the need to protect vulnerable residents from a highly contagious disease against the limits of using public money for costly temporary housing.
“It’s important for us to house these households and keep them safe,” said Sarah Tripple, planning and programming manager for the Washington County Community Services Department. “It is definitely a more expensive model, and so I think we’re kind of having constant conversations about how do we protect our residents and also be fiscally responsive to our other residents as well.”
In Washington County, like other metro counties, the demand for hotel rooms has grown substantially during the pandemic. Washington County had about 20 hotel rooms booked last week, compared to about four per month before COVID-19.
Ramsey County is renting rooms for 138 people at the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront and Holiday Inn in downtown St. Paul. The county will need about 300 hotel rooms to meet the goal of reducing its shelter population by at least half and is currently negotiating additional contracts.
“We are poised to see a significant expansion within the next two weeks, both in the number of hotels and the number of available beds,” said County Manager Ryan O’Connor.
In Hennepin County, commissioners could vote as soon as Tuesday to move forward with buying hotels to replace the five entire hotels the county is currently leasing.
The county expects to spend about $4.7 million between March and the end of May to shelter more than 800 people in hotels. Of that, about $2.4 million will be spent in May, and the monthly cost is expected to rise.
Some hotels are used to shelter people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results. The others are used to reduce shelter capacity and help people who are high risk to isolate before they contract the disease.
Unlike most other metro counties, Hennepin has not released the names of the hotels it is working with, saying that it feared doing so would identify the recipients of government aid or people who have tested positive for the disease. One of its largest contracts pays an unknown hotel about $1.3 million to provide rooms and food for 200 people through June 29.
Early efforts to house people in hotels have focused on the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Metro county officials said people are coming from a range of places, from congregate shelters to hospital beds. Some have been couch-hopping or living outside.
The scope and price of the sheltering effort varies throughout the metro area.
In Scott County, which has about a tenth the population and an even smaller fraction of the COVID-19 cases of Hennepin County — 259 cases compared to 5,409 cases, as of Monday — officials have yet to place anyone in up to 15 rooms at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Shakopee.
Of the 18 households that Carver County has placed in hotels, a dozen are living at the Chaska Super 8. The hotel has had a relationship with the county since December, when manager Sana Cheema said she persuaded the owner to rent rooms to the county after Jen Romero, the county’s housing unit supervisor, approached her with a request for a discounted rate for a winter shelter.
“I explained to him that your rooms are empty anyways,” Cheema said. “Even though she’ll give us little money, just imagine how much people will get help, and your bills will be paid.”
Romero said rooms at the Super 8 and two other hotels, which the county declined to name, average $50 a night.
Because the need for emergency shelter arose quickly and urgently, counties have needed to issue contracts faster than they normally would — sometimes bypassing their typical public approval processes.
At the beginning of the pandemic, many hotels refused to rent to Hennepin County, so officials there signed with the first hotel that would, Rogan said.
As stay-at-home orders went into place and travel plummeted, more hotels have expressed an interest in working with the county, so officials have begun soliciting information from multiple businesses, Rogan said.
As the costs continue to rise, the metro counties are turning to state and federal officials for aid. Most are paying for hotels, at least in part, with a month-to-month grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Office of Economic Opportunity.
The office has $26.5 million available to help tribal governments, local governments and nonprofit organizations expand their shelter capacity, purchase hygiene and sanitation supplies and staff homelessness programs. Of that, it has given out just over $9.5 million, about $3.5 million of which has gone to counties.
Last weekend, state lawmakers earmarked an additional $7.2 million to help counties and tribes provide emergency isolation spaces, with the goal that some of that money could eventually be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.