Ramsey County officials make plea for state to help homeless during COVID-19

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Gov.Tim Walz’s Office said staff planned to meet Friday with Ramsey County officials about a request for a low-barrier shelter to help those experiencing homelessness.

Ramsey County’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director, Judson M. Freed, wrote a letter earlier in the week to Minnesota’s Division of Emergency Management asking for state funding and staffing for a shelter to provide essential services to 200 people currently living in homeless encampments.

“Ramsey County has made every effort to provide sanitation required by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the Governor, and MDH to unsheltered encampments, and our vendors are no longer able to continue to assist us,” Freed wrote in Monday’s letter. “However, the size of encampments is now growing significantly, sanitation approaches established by the city and county are now failing, and the public health threat from COVID-19 spread, drug use and generally unsanitary and uncontrolled conditions means that the current encampment situation is untenable.”

Ramsey County estimates there are nearly 70 homeless encampments that are currently in use.

"We have made a request, a plea, a dire plea, for support in staffing and a location,” said Trista MatasCastillo, Ramsey County Third District Commissioner.

MatasCastillo said the county has helped area shelters socially distance more than 400 people, which has meant moving individuals to different locations, including hotels during COVID-19, which has added to extra expenses and has drained staffing resources.

"We are at a point that we need action, we need help, we need staff, we need people to help us, we need the logistical support, we need the state to step in this case," MatasCastillo said.

“This is not only an individual this is a public health issue," said Walz when asked about Ramsey County’s request at Friday's news conference. “It's pronounced more in the urban areas, but it's everywhere I think what Ramsey County and what other counties are asking for this is a state issue, they do need some help."

There’s a homeless encampment set up in downtown St. Paul where the state Capitol is within sight.

"Come in with the love of god and the love of human connection cause they are worth it," said Rachel Gorski, with Safe City Project.

Gorski and other volunteers drop off supplies on Fridays at various encampments in Ramsey County.

"We see a lot of the shelters that used to take them aren't able to take new people, so the people that are on the streets are really stuck," Gorski said.

“We are identifying ways to add staffing capacity to local governments to help meet the immediate need and to pick up parts of this response that we know local governments can’t do alone,” wrote Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Leimaile Ho in a statement.

State government has mobilized over $40 million in resources to respond to people experiencing homelessness, creating or reinforcing shelter capacity all across the state, including the Twin Cities, the state housing commissioner wrote.

A low-barrier shelter does not have many of the requirements that other shelters have for gaining entry.