Confronted with surging homelessness that's filling shelters and spilling into makeshift camps across the city, St. Paul and Ramsey County officials want to add 100 homeless shelter beds by winter, increasing the number of available beds in the east metro to more than 800.

City officials as of last week counted 380 homeless people living outside at dozens of makeshift camps across St. Paul, the highest number on record. The highest daily number of people the city recorded in camps last year was 26, and 30 people were counted sleeping outdoors in early March.

The city and county will rely on a pot of $37.9 million in state, federal and local funds to help address the surge in homelessness into the fall. More than half of that is from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and must be used by year's end.

"These are unprecedented times. We have never seen these numbers in such a short period of time," said Ricardo Cervantes, St. Paul's director of safety and inspections.

Local leaders say the pandemic also has brought unprecedented resources to address the problem.

The number of people sleeping outside in St. Paul has spiked for a number of reasons, Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said. The pandemic and subsequent shutdown not only have created record unemployment, it closed doors to many who were surviving on the margins by couch-hopping with friends and family, Tincher said.

"As families practice social distancing, they sometimes pushed friends and family out of their homes," said Max Holdhusen, Ramsey County's housing stability manager.

A St. Paul spokeswoman said Wednesday that city officials were planning to clear an encampment of about 30 people Thursday morning near Interstate 35E and Kellogg Boulevard.

Looking at the long term

Gov. Tim Walz's ongoing emergency executive order requires local government agencies to accommodate people displaced when camps are removed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials recently earmarked $8 million for three new shelters in the city, including one for Native residents. Advocates said that's not enough, and some urged the city to open a municipal facility in the East Phillips neighborhood to house people this winter.

After Minneapolis officials last week cleared out a homeless camp for safety reasons, the displaced group moved its tents to an area near Hiawatha and Franklin avenues that held a massive camp two years ago. City parks officials said that camps remained at more than 20 parks in Minneapolis and that they likely would be cleared out in October when the cold makes sleeping outside more dangerous.

St. Paul and Ramsey County officials said they were focusing on longer-term solutions as both winter and the CARES funding deadline approach. They want to add more day centers for homeless people because many shelters don't open until evening.

Ramsey County, along with its nonprofit partners, has already increased the number of its emergency shelter beds by more than a third to 757, Holdhusen said. That includes renting hundreds of hotel rooms every night for seniors, women and those considered most vulnerable. The additional 100 beds officials want would bring the number to 857.

The county has hired a real estate broker to find property for low-barrier emergency shelter and longer-term supportive housing. But local government leaders said finding real estate is just half the challenge; support from social workers and mental health and substance abuse counselors also is needed to accompany housing options.

"Many people living outside have suffered some trauma," Tincher said. "Some are more housing-ready than others."

She said it was important that supportive housing options be flexible and create a sense of community, noting that some homeless couples prefer to sleep outside rather than be separated by gender in traditional shelter settings. Some people, deterred by rules limiting bags and pets at local shelters, are choosing a tent rather than a shelter bed.

"Everyone wants community. Everyone wants to belong," Tincher said.

"The biggest hurdle is creating a welcoming program so people don't see sleeping in a tent outside as a better option," Holdhusen said.

Staff writer Emma Nelson contributed to this report.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037