Hundreds experiencing homelessness finding refuge in hotels during pandemic

[anvplayer video=”4965539″ station=”998122″]

Hotels have been a refuge for hundreds of people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Vacancies have dropped as the tourism industry struggles, creating an opportunity for Hennepin County staff and local nonprofits in need of shelter space.

“We took this public health step to ensure the very highest risk people didn’t get sick and to reduce the risk of others getting sick by de-concentrating the shelters,” said David Hewitt, the director of the Office to End Homelessness in Hennepin County. “It’s been incredibly effective.”

The county is leasing five hotels. Three are specifically designated for those considered high risk for contracting COVID-19, including those over the age of 60 and those with underlying health conditions.

“They could close behind them, a private space, access their own facilities and in so doing bring down their risk of contracting COVID pretty dramatically,” Hewitt said.

Since March, he said they’ve sheltered at least 800 people at those hotels. There are currently more than 500 individuals staying in hotel rooms.

KSTP’s complete coverage

According to Hewitt, the county has also leased two hotels specifically for those experiencing COVID symptoms.

“Where we are dealing with sick people, we lease the entire hotel,” he said. “We need somewhere for people who have nowhere else to go … if they do become sick somewhere they can kind of recuperate comfortably but somewhere where we also reduce the risk of the transmission.”

Hewitt told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that more than 300 people have stayed at those two hotels since the pandemic began.

“It’s critically important we stay on this path,” he said.

Local nonprofits have also been turning to hotels.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS spoke to a team with the Eagan-based organization ZACAH at a Bloomington hotel.

They’ve been working with Allen Touche, who is staying at the hotel with his girlfriend.

Touche told KSTP they were living in his car due to the shortage of housing. Earlier this month, they set up a tent at the Wall of Forgotten Natives, the Franklin Hiawatha Encampment.

After their tent was stolen, an outreach worker replaced it and connected them to the Bloomington hotel.

“She was like ‘We would like to put you up in a motel for two weeks’ and we were like ‘Are you serious,’” Touche said. “I always learned to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I was like ‘Is this for real?’ … It’s been a wonderful experience being able to have a bed to sleep in, being able to shower, get a good night’s sleep. It allows me to go to work each and every day Monday through Friday.”

Their two-week stay has now been extended until Oct. 1.

“I was actually worried about where we would stay, even though we have a tent to stay in, it’s going to start getting cold,” he said.

Touche is a union member and part of the team building the Red Lake Nation affordable housing complex on Cedar Avenue.

“I take great pride in building that apartment building,” he said.

He will move into an apartment there next year.

“Being Native American, I have a unique perspective as to I’ve been homeless,” he said. I’ve actually slept beneath a tree or a bush on months on end. I’ve experienced the hardships of being homeless during the summer and in the wintertime.”

Black and Native American individuals disproportionately experience homelessness across the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“There is absolutely the need for housing for people who are homeless, who are vulnerable who are in a situation where they simply need that basic shelter,” Bloomington Mayor Tim Busse said. “What I would like to see is a region-wide approach to this problem. It is a regional problem, we need a regional solution to it.”

Bloomington City Council members, however, also addressed concerns about safety at hotels at their Sept. 14 meeting. Council documents show five hotels are serving as shelters in some capacity.

“There was a significant increase in calls at a number of our hotels,” Busse said. “The calls ranged from robberies, to break-ins in the neighborhoods, to drug use and nuisance and noise complaints.”

At one hotel there was a 569% increase in police calls year to year. The data looked at calls from March 1 to Sept. 9 in both 2019 and 2020. Another hotel showed a 361% increase in police calls from year to year.

“In some cases, the hotels were not properly staffed, whether it was the hotels themselves or, for example, Hennepin County or whatever social service agency wasn’t necessarily staffed up correctly,” Busse said.

He said they have been working with those partners and police to reduce the calls.

Council documents say at two hotels leased by Hennepin County, "After working with City staff, and increasing their on-site staff oversight, the calls for service have decreased.”

St. Stephen’s is using another hotel mentioned by the council.

“Our community, the folks that we serve, want a safe space,” said Michael Huffman, the Director of Outreach & Shelter. “It’s hard for me to really comment on what is attributable to our clients or our guests or our participants, versus non-hotel guests, visitors or potentially folks that are renting rooms on their own.”

He said they are not leasing the entire hotel. St. Stephen’s team has been doing rounds at the hotel to ensure safety, according to Huffman.

“We are working with the hotel, we are working with police,” he said.

Huffman told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they continue to see demand for their services.

“We have a waitlist to get into the hotels for folks act are being triaged, upwards of 80 folks,” he said.

He told KSTP the stability provided by hotel stays has shown positive housing results. Due to financial constraints though, they don’t currently have plans to expand the program.

“I think there’s always going to be a need for more shelter space, hotels, investment in long-term solutions,” said Huffman. "Without investment in the shelter, we’re going to continue to come up against a large population of folks that are unsheltered and don’t have any access to anywhere to be.”

Huffman also shared concerns about the displacement that will occur when permits for encampments at Minneapolis parks come to an end.

According to the Parks and Recreation Board, there are 15 permitted encampments, but those are expected to be discontinued by the end of October.

“We do an annual point in time count showed at least 700 people in Hennepin County that are unsheltered and staying outside,” said Huffman.

Hewitt is also concerned with winter on the way.

“I think this year’s scale of demand and what is available, to bring people inside I think that’s extremely challenging," he said.

They estimate there are about 74,000 households who are in the lowest category of income, while there are only about 14,000 units of affordable housing at that level, according to Hewitt.

“That’s a 60,000 unit gap,” he said. “Fundamentally in our community, there is not enough housing for people who are very low income.”

He said while not all of those individuals will experience homelessness, those that have usually fallen within that income bracket.

“Everyone is going to be working really hard on a person-by-person basis to get folks to the safest place they can possibly be,” said Hewitt.

He told KSTP they don’t have a deadline for when they will end the hotel program but expect there could be funding challenges when CARES Act funding expires on Dec. 30.