County Manager Column from Oct. 6, 2020

Preparing a next step in our response to homelessness

At today’s board meeting, our commissioners and I discussed a possible solution to meet our joint goal with the city of Saint Paul of adding 100+ low-barrier shelter beds by winter for those experiencing homelessness in the east metro. As you may have seen in the news, M Health Fairview is making significant changes to their service delivery model – including moving operations out of Bethesda Hospital located near the state Capitol complex. Ramsey County has been in discussions around a lease agreement that would provide homelessness services at Bethesda through this winter and beyond. There is nothing easy about any of this work. As we hear from a community that continues to ask us to do more to serve those facing housing instability, this is one of many steps that the county will take to address those needs and, hopefully, continue to focus on long-term solutions to housing stability that go well beyond emergency shelter.

Watch the video (Starts at 25:25)

A city-county staff workgroup has been meeting on issues related to unsheltered homelessness since last year – well before the COVID-19 outbreak. By late July 2020, the focus turned to seeking options for a 100-bed expansion in preparation for what we fully expect to be a very demanding and potentially dangerous winter during the pandemic. The Bethesda site came forward as a promising option in recent weeks. It’s licensed at 252 hospital beds with a current patient capacity of 126 beds. It’s primarily surrounded by green space and institutional/office space with parking and good transit service – including the METRO Green Line. The building is in very good condition with multiple elevator banks, staircases and wings that can be secured off from one another. There are suitable patient rooms and offices. The facility has restrooms and showers for potential shelter use as well as laundry and kitchen/dining facilities.

The 100 new low-barrier shelter beds that would be available to unsheltered residents from referral though our homeless outreach teams. This model recognizes that many unsheltered residents struggle with chemical health issues and aims to create a safe environment with on-site programmatic support. This model would complement the emergency overnight service provided at Ramsey County’s Safe Space. At Bethesda, residents would be able to use an individual room for multiple nights to provide stability and more sustained connection to services. Also, meeting space and day space for case managers and outreach staff would also be available and programmed in coordination with partner service providers to expand upon the aligned service delivery support model currently being implemented at Higher Ground Saint Paul.

Other plans include transitioning our primary respite care site – currently provided at Boys Totem Town – to Bethesda which is better suited for isolation with individual rooms and toilets, negative air flow and closer proximity to the network of homeless service providers. In addition, we are exploring financial and programmatic opportunities with Hennepin County and Catholic Charities for health care, testing and service provision on a more regional scale.

Finally, the site provides opportunities for us to develop continuity of operations plans for food preparation and delivery, COVID respite and hotel programs. This ensures resiliency for the existing system of shelter, respite and temporary hotel stays, while also expanding the number of available beds.

As discussed today, the board is expected to vote on a long-term lease soon, which would begin on Dec. 1. Between now and then, we will be soliciting shelter, food and related services with partner organizations and evaluating every opportunity that may bring new partners into the east metro to ensure that Ramsey County is not attempting to unilaterally own and operate all aspects of this expansion. We will also be looking to the state for funding support that mirrors support provided to other communities similarly working to address homelessness this winter. And we’ll have an opportunity to engage with the local community in the Capitol Heights neighborhood.

The Bethesda Hospital site presents both an opportunity to address immediate and significant community needs and a significant challenge. This site will allow us to meet our goal of adding beds for this winter that can be sustainable through 2021, but will require reevaluation and planning beyond that. The site will allow us to relocate and consolidate services at one location for higher quality and more efficient service provision, but – pending board approval – we only have a few weeks to establish this program along with our partners in time for winter.

I’m very proud of our staff across a number of areas – with particular thanks to our participants in the city-county workgroup and Property Management – who have identified this opportunity with M Health Fairview and have promptly brought forward a proposal that aligns with our strategic priority, “Stability Starts with a Place to Call Home,” and our goal to reduce the spread and impact of COVID-19.

Additional resources on Ramsey County’s response to homelessness during COVID-19