County Manager Column from April 14, 2020

This column was originally published as a "From the County Manager" column on our employee intranet

Our commitment to protecting those without homes during the COVID-19 pandemic

At Ramsey County, we continue to serve those experiencing homelessness throughout this pandemic and aligning our resources to protect the health and safety of these members of our community by prioritizing the immediate need while continuing to support and sustain efforts with our partners. Individuals and families are especially vulnerable when experiencing homelessness.

Homelessness has become an increasingly pressing issue at the local, regional, state and national level. Addressing housing stability through our work at Ramsey County is one of our Strategic Priorities and has been an area of ongoing, multi-faceted focus for several years. We have invested millions of dollars in new funding during the past three years to address the increase in homelessness in our community, while simultaneously continuing to advocate for the state and regional resources are needed to address the scope of the housing instability challenge.

View graphs and data on the number of people experiencing homelessness

The COVID-19 pandemic presents additional immediate danger to those who face additional barriers that come with not having a stable and reliable place to stay, and it requires a concentrated response that seeks to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Priority: Individuals living in congregate settings to reduce the risk of spread at shelter facilities

Ramsey County’s approach has been to prioritize and focus resources where the needs are the greatest and efforts will help the most people during this crisis. The immediate priority is to provide support and relief for congregate living facilities that are usually at capacity. We need to lessen the number of residents in these current settings to ensure social distancing in conformance with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidelines to reduce the risks of those staying there and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Without other organizations able to meet this resource need - in part due to effects from COVID-19 - Ramsey County is in the process of opening more than 500 more shelter beds to ensure safe social distancing is possible for every individual and family living in a congregate setting.

On March 17, 2020, the Ramsey County Board allocated up to $1.8 million to focus on reducing this potential of exposure at shelters. Millions more will likely still be needed. On March 27, Ramsey County and its partners opened a respite facility at Catholic Charities former Mary Hall location near downtown Saint Paul. The facility accommodates up to 140 people showing COVID-19 symptoms who are referred from the primary shelter facilities in the East Metro: Catholic Charities Higher GroundUnion Gospel Mission and the Safe Space facility at Ramsey County Government Center East. At Mary Hall, around-the-clock security, symptom monitoring, meals, and other supports provide respite for the individuals who are not feeling well and a measure of quarantine from congregate settings.

The campus of the former Boys Totem Town program in Saint Paul’s Battle Creek neighborhood is also being prepared to accommodate approximately 80 individuals if additional respite space becomes necessary. We ultimately won’t know if this space is needed until case numbers increase in our community, but we know that we must plan now if we want to be ready to respond in the days ahead.

Further, we are partnering with local hotels and motels to secure approximately 60 rooms for older adults experiencing homelessness who are at higher risk of COVID-19. Also, we are offering housing in hotels and motels to approximately 20 young adults aged 16-24 who have nowhere else to go.

Ramsey County continues to provide support for up to 30 families experiencing homelessness through our Family Service Center in Maplewood, Project Home shelter. Since that setting is at capacity, another of our programs provides motel rooms as temporary housing for families who have no other place to stay. This program is currently serving an average of 12 families each month. These facilities and programs have been adapted to follow social distancing guidelines and public health guidance to ensure that parents and their children can stay save throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.    

View graphs and data on family shelter use

As a partner: continue to support individuals in unsheltered settings

The issue of unsheltered homelessness was significant before the outbreak of COVID-19 and has been a growing issue in our community for some time. Just as before the outbreak, it is also an issue in which the current need outstrips Ramsey County's ability to fully address the issue without state, regional and local partnerships.

Ramsey County supports the City of Saint Paul, service providers and community partners to serve adults experiencing homelessness who are sheltering out-of-doors, camping or are on the verge of homelessness. Efforts focus on continued operational support of county services and referral networks to encourage homeless adults to connect with existing resources through shelter facilities or programs. The current estimate is that there are about 70 campsites with around 400 people in them. Saint Paul has designated five unsheltered camp sites (per CDC recommendations) for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. Ramsey County has placed portable toilets and hand washing stations near these campsites to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. We will continue to partner with community and support other agencies to ensure that our unsheltered population needs are met, but we are unable to fully address this significant issue without additional state and regional support. Homelessness is not an issue contained by city limits or county lines. 

View graphs and data on housing and shelter inventory

We continue pressing for legislation and funding to provide sustainable and affordable housing at the regional and state level to address homelessness. Without a broader commitment to significant collaborative action, those experiencing homelessness and all the communities and neighbors who support them remain especially vulnerable during a crisis.

Every day of the COVID-19 pandemic has presented all of us with very difficult choices. We recognize that the need to serve all our populations and communities puts an immense strain on our resources, and Ramsey County will continue to do all that it can to meet the needs of this community during the COVID-19 emergency. In order to ensure safe options exist for as many people as possible, we will continue to build out our bed capacity to ensure all those in congregate settings have the space that they need, and we will continue to do all that we can in partnership with others to address the issue of unsheltered homelessness that continues to grow around us.

Please visit and share Housing Services & Support section at ramseycounty.us as a resource if anyone you know is facing housing instability.