Neighbors call for transparency as Ramsey County prepares to vote on Bethesda Hospital shelter

Ramsey County leaders are racing to find a place for hundreds of homeless people to stay before winter hits. The Board of Commissioners is expected to vote Tuesday on a $1.15 million lease agreement with HealthEast Care System to lease Bethesda Hospital.

If approved, the agreement would run from Dec. 1 2020 to May 31, 2022.

“It was a little shocking,” said Ronnie Santana, who lives two blocks from the hospital. “That’s a big endeavor to begin with and I respect the drive to want to provide that but …I moved here in the summer and this is the first time I’ve heard about it.”

The proposal was made public on Oct. 5 as Fairview Health Services announced significant system-wide changes. It included moving COVID-19 patients from Bethesda Hospital to St. Joseph’s and allowing Ramsey County to lease the facility for a homeless shelter.

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“The fact that the county has come in along with in conjunction with Fairview to present their own view of what that should be without consulting the neighborhood, I think is concerning,” Santana said.

Michael Menege, who has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, agreed.

“It just seems as though things have been moving far too quickly,” Menege said. “There was no solicitation to the neighborhood.”

There hasn’t been a formal public hearing on the proposal but a virtual town hall was held on Thursday.

Menege attended but told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS he didn’t have the opportunity to speak.

“We’ve all invested in this neighborhood and really try to build it up and I’ve seen tremendous change in the time that I’ve lived here,” Menege said. “If something is going to happen in our neighborhood, we really feel we should be solicited, we should be a part of this.”

Board of Commissioners Chair Toni Carter told us there is an urgent need for housing with winter approaching.

“Clearly this is a position where we’re working to beat a clock,” she said. “It is one of the only facilities that we know of that can address our needs, the 100 beds it would be able to provide for shelter immediately.”

It would provide up to 100 low-barrier shelter beds on a referral basis. According to county documents, “The low-barrier model recognizes that many of our unsheltered residents are chemically dependent and would aim to create a safe environment for those who may be intoxicated and provide programmatic support that currently does not exist.”

Those experiencing homelessness would be able to use an individual room for multiple nights.

Chair Carter said the hospital would need few changes to adapt to the new use. It already has restrooms, showers, a kitchen and dining facilities. She told us is also has space for mental health, substance use disorder, and employment services.

In addition, part of the site would be used to isolate those who have COVID symptoms, including rooms already outfitted for negative airflow.

“The variety of just things that are available to address that need are more than we could find in any other location, at least any other location that’s available to us,” Carter said.

According to Ramsey County, there are more than 300 unsheltered individuals county-wide.

“The numbers have been increasing so dramatically that our efforts have been outpaced by the increasing need and there is just a dire need for increased capacity,” Carter said.

More than 140 people who live nearby have now signed a petition, however, with nearly all opposing the project.

“We feel we have legitimate concerns about what’s going to happen with crime, drug use,” Menege said.

Both he and Santana are calling for more transparency and communication as the process moves forward.

“I think it’s an admirable and novel pursuit but I think there are collateral consequences that should be considered with respect to that,” Santana said. “Will there be ample security? How will that impact property values?”

He wants a community conversation over the best possible use for the site.

“I think coming in with the preconceived idea that a homeless shelter is the most proper use of this space is a little insulting, I think, to the neighborhood,” Santana said.

Carter told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS there will be 24-hour security on the site, if the project is voted through. She said it will emphasize de-escalation and a trauma informed response, possibly including a co-responder model with law enforcement and social services.

She said they plan to discuss the community’s concerns and questions on Tuesday.

“We will talk about it and determine if those answers have been satisfactorily answered and if we need a little bit more time we’ll take that time,” she said. “We do understand the community’s concerns for a healthy and safe community.”

Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS she plans to introduce a motion to delay the vote for a week to allow more time for community engagement.