Ramsey County says it will have beds for all unsheltered there this winter

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Ramsey County leaders say they will have shelter space for every person experiencing homelessness in the county this winter. It’s a huge undertaking with roughly 350 unsheltered individuals county-wide.

"We believe that we’re going to fully be able to meet the needs of every one of our neighbors who are currently outside," District 3 Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo said. "We will have indoor bed space for them come January when funds and expansions are all in place."

MatasCastillo told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that it’s a collaboration between the county, city of St. Paul, and state.

“It is something that has taken a huge amount of energy, time and a lot of partners,” MatasCastillo said.

She told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS the Board of Commissioners was notified last week that the county has received $2.4 million in state funding, which will allow them to continue using hotel space to house people. The program was scheduled to end in December because of a lack of funds.

“It will not only continue that program but also expand bed capacity,” she said. “We had about 185 people in hotel rooms throughout COVID through this point and we’ll be able to continue those 185 beds and add additional beds.”

MatasCastillo said they will also use the state funding to create a mobile team to connect individuals with resources.

“There’s no two situations exactly the same,” she said. “When people are experiencing homelessness, it’s a variety of reasons whether it’s a loss of job, a traumatic event, mental health or chemical health.”

They hope the planned Bethesda Hospital shelter will also provide mental health and substance use disorder services. The county’s 18 month lease with M Health Fairview officially started on Dec. 1.

MatasCastillo told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they are now waiting for a final approval from the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board. A 30-day public comment period is currently underway.

“Our goal would be within 24 hours of approval we’d have doors open and we’d be bringing folks in to that site that are referred from our community partners,” she said.

Bethesda Hospital would add 100 shelter beds, plus another 75 beds specifically for those experiencing COVID symptoms.

“In the last week or so, we’ve seen the numbers really increase and our own current [isolation] facility is at capacity and the state has also opened additional sites that we are utilizing for that respite,” MatasCastillo said.

She told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that they have opened two temporary shelters in collaboration with the city of St. Paul to help bridge the gap until Bethesda Hospital is open as a shelter.The shelters at the Harriet Island Pavilion and Duluth and Case Recreation Center are providing about 100 beds.

Ramsey County has also added about 75 beds on the Luther Seminary campus.

“We have never had a situation like we had this year,” she said.

Model Cities’ Andrea Hinderaker has seen the demand increase first-hand as the manager of the Safe Space shelter, which her organization operates with Ramsey County.

“Safe Space has been at near capacity, Higher Ground is at capacity every night,” Hinderaker said. “The pandemic has had so many effects that don’t only translate into shelter numbers but also the wear and tear on the unsheltered populations.”

She told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS many are choosing to stay outdoors rather than enter a congregate setting like a shelter. With many businesses and buildings closed due to the pandemic, there are also fewer places for individuals experiencing homelessness to go during the day.

"We’re at capacity and when folks come to us they are so worn, and they are so broken, and they’re so exhausted because nothing is available for them to even breathe a little bit during the day," Hinderaker said.

She told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS the additional shelter spaces coming online are already providing those experiencing homelessness with more options, and possibly encouraging those who are hesitant to seek shelter.

Hinderaker said she looks forward to the Bethesda Hospital shelter opening.

“Bethesda gives the person the opportunity to rest and then have services there that have been absent for so long and really being to get a foundation started for change,” she said.

“This could be your child, it could be your parent, it could be someone close to you,” Hinderaker added. “Offer that same amount of compassion and be open to the shelter that might show up in your neighborhood and do not be fearful that these are strangers who are going to come and ruin things. These are humans seeking shelter and warmth and we have that to provide if we work together.”