A shuttered juvenile correction facility on St. Paul’s East Side is poised to become a shelter for homeless people suspected or known to have COVID-19.
The St. Paul City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the temporary use of three buildings on the 72-acre Boys Totem Town site, which closed last year, to quarantine about 80 people who would otherwise be living in shelters. It’s part of a plan that local officials across Ramsey County have crafted to protect some of their most vulnerable residents and slow the virus’ spread.
With other emergency housing in place, including a formerly vacant Catholic Charities building and hotel rooms in St. Paul, Boys Totem Town isn’t yet needed. But Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, who’s leading a homelessness work group made up of officials throughout the county, said she expects demand for beds will outstrip supply as the virus spreads through shelters and encampments.
“This is why we’re working so hard to identify spaces,” she said. “Now, I’ll be really honest — we don’t have the capacity to do it.”
Commissioners from Ramsey and Hennepin counties, along with the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, plan to ask the state for money and personnel to mount a regional response to homelessness during a phone call Thursday with Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, MatasCastillo said.
The Ramsey County Board in mid-March allocated up to $1.8 million — $664,544 of which had been spent as of Wednesday — for temporary quarantine facilities for residents experiencing homelessness. Ten days later, the county opened Mary Hall in downtown St. Paul to homeless single adults displaying COVID-19 symptoms.
Mary Hall, a former dormitory and temporary shelter that Ramsey County is leasing from Catholic Charities, can house up to 140 people. Once it’s full, the county will open the former Boys Totem Town.
Occupancy at Mary Hall has hovered around 40 people in the last month, said Max Holdhusen, Ramsey County’s housing stability manager. People can stay up to two weeks, or until they’re asymptomatic.
So far, no one has gotten sick enough with COVID-19 to require hospitalization, Holdhusen said, and people who have recovered have returned to other temporary housing.
Others have had to leave because they weren’t following the code of conduct, which includes prohibitions on smoking and drug and alcohol use inside the building — although “if someone was deemed COVID-positive, we wouldn’t kick them out for smoking in the room,” he said.
“These are voluntary facilities,” he said. “It’s really about creating an environment that encourages people to stay there.”
St. Paul Council Member Jane Prince, whose ward includes Boys Totem Town, said neighbors she’s talked to have expressed support for turning the site into a shelter.
“I think it’s a really appropriate place to look at being able to serve those needs during this unprecedented crisis,” she said.
The county is also renting hotel rooms in St. Paul for 88 people who are homeless but are not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, and is in contract negotiations to rent more, Holdhusen said.
More than 400 beds are needed for people currently living in shelters in Ramsey County, MatasCastillo said, and that’s not counting people living outside. Efforts to turn dormitories on college campuses and at the State Fairgrounds into temporary shelters so far have been unsuccessful, she said.
“I’ve been working on [homelessness] for so many years that I’m a little cynical,” MatasCastillo said, “and yet I really believe we really can solve this if we put our minds to it.”