St. Paul taking personalized outreach approach to find shelter for unhoused people

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As winter weather settles in, Ramsey County and St. Paul leaders use what they’ve learned during the pandemic to address homelessness better.

While it’s a year-round effort to get people off the street and into shelters, winter adds stress with the increased danger for those who are unsheltered.

"The game plan is we don’t want people sheltering outdoors," St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said.

Tincher added the pandemic has changed how the city is handling the issue — one focus this winter is making personal connections with those who need a place to stay.

"We need more ability to have that street outreach and be able to as a city, have staff that are going person to person, individual by individual, and figuring out [the needs of people who are unsheltered]," she added.

St. Paul recently hired a housing counselor to help with that work — outreach teams have also started daily checks at encampments around the city.

"You have to create a certain level of trust," Ricardo Cervantes, director of the department of safety and inspections, said about the outreach teams.

Cervantes oversees that effort and says the daily encampment checks give the city and county a better idea of how many people need shelter and allow them to make those personal connections to serve individuals and their families better.

During the most recent check, Cervantes says there were 32 people unsheltered at 17 encampments across the city. Their goal is to get those numbers to zero, but it’s a great improvement from the nearly 400 people who were unsheltered during the height of the pandemic.

To address that spike in demand for shelters, Ramsey County has spent tens of millions of dollars of federal pandemic relief money to open temporary emergency shelters and lease hotel rooms for those in need.

The hotel leases — Best Western Como Park and Capitol Ridge — are up, leaving three temporary shelters open. Ramsey County says it has federal funding to keep those shelters open through spring.

Cervantes says addressing homelessness has always been a collaborative effort — county, city, and community organizations working together to help as many people as possible — but the pandemic has made that even clearer.

Catholic Charities of Saint Paul has been, and is, a big part of this work, and demand has also increased for their services. The pandemic didn’t allow them to serve as many people because of COVID-19 safety concerns. At that point, the county’s ability to take more people in helping.

Some of that balance is shifting back as the county relies on Catholic Charities in their work to get as many people sheltered as possible.