Cold, COVID-19 complicate situation for people without shelter

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It looks like a construction site.

Work crews hammering away, the scream of circular saws filling the air, the smell of fresh-cut wood everywhere.

In the Twin Cities, winter weather is coming, and soon.

“We’re working against that deadline,” said Jeff Linert, a board member with the homeless advocacy group Settled. “To get everything set up, and we’d like to get these in, so that we can get these people out of the woods and into some community where they’re valued.”

In fact, all that hard work and elbow grease is from volunteers, busily constructing five tiny homes in a parking lot at Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood — each one an individual home for a person experiencing chronic homelessness.

"An army of volunteers to build housing that’s going to last 50 or a 100 years,” says Gabrielle Clowdus, co-founder of Settled. “More than ever, we need places that are long-term. We can’t just continue to do emergency responses and warehouse people while we’re waiting for affordable housing to be built.”

In St. Paul alone, it’s estimated there are now approximately 400 people experiencing homelessness; 285 are now sheltered in hotel rooms, and others are in tent encampments.

"You’re having people together and they don’t feel valued,” Linert said. “Feel like cattle and not like people.”

The homeless, and those trying to help them, face "the two C’s": cold and COVID-19.

With the pandemic still raging, advocates say the idea of warehousing people in dormitory shelters is a potential health threat.

“We’ve had people doubled up, sleeping on floors, on luncheon floors, packing people in to get them from the cold,” Ramsey County Commissioner Trista Matascastillo said. “We can’t do that.”

So now, Ramsey County has a plan to lease Bethesda Hospital from M Health Fairview for 18 months for around $1.2 million.

The facility would be a safe-distancing shelter for 100 homeless people, and perhaps a dozen or so COVID-19 patients.

"For us, it is about how can we rent the building and lease the building from Bethesda, so we can move folks who are currently experiencing homelessness inside,” Matascastillo said. “There would be an opportunity at the hospital for individual rooms. We can distance in the cafeteria if we provide food. Obviously hand-washing and sanitation as well."

But the plan is getting pushback from neighbors and the Minnesota Nurses Association after M Health Fairview’s announcement earlier this month of plans to lay off 900 people.

“Minnesota Nurses Association is totally not against finding shelter for the homeless,” MNA President Mary Turner told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. “We just have reservations about laying off or restructuring during a pandemic.”

In a statement, M Health Fairview says during the pandemic, “… rising costs are far outpacing reimbursement rates. In the first six months of this year, Fairview lost $163 million.”

The statement also says “COVID-19 patients housed at Bethesda will be transferred to St. Joseph’s Hospital by the end of 2020.”

Meantime, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to vote on the lease plan this Tuesday.

“This is 100 more beds. We need to find 400 new beds,” Matascastillo said. “This is temporary. This is just a solution to stabilize the population long enough that we can go upstream and get permanent housing solutions, and we’re working on both.”

Back in Maplewood, the goal by Settled volunteers is to finish the small structures, each about the size of a fish house, by mid-November. They cost about $25,000 apiece and are financed by individual church congregations.

The homes will be placed on church property in a cluster called a "sacred settlement."

The work goes on, even as the cold weather season quickly approaches and the pandemic threat continues.

“It’s more relevant than ever that we’re building individual, single homes,” Clowdus said. “So that people can have their own individual space, and then as a sacred settlement, they can be a kind of bubble unto themselves.”