Nov. 21—Both by choice and not, Anthony Johnson has been right there alongside those who are experiencing homelessness.
For the past 15 months, he has been among Ramsey County staff working at Best Western Capitol Ridge, a COVID-19 emergency homeless shelter near downtown St. Paul that the county set up in July of last year for those 55 and older. As a shelter wellness assistant, it is Johnson's job to make sure residents have what they need during their stay, whether it's a ride to a grocery store or a daily temperature check for COVID.
Johnson said he can relate, because he too was homeless and turned to Capitol Ridge for shelter. Shortly after arriving in the Twin Cities from Chicago in 2019, the 63-year-old stayed at Catholic Charities' Higher Ground in St. Paul. He eventually landed a room at the hotel, then a full-time job there.
"I'm grateful. I thank God every day," said Johnson, who now has an apartment in downtown St. Paul. "That's why I'm adamant about helping all of these people get what they need. Who is a better advocate for the homeless than someone who was one of them? That's why I'm here, doing what I do."
Work at Capitol Ridge is coming to an end, however, as the county has decided to shutter the 125-room shelter on Nov. 30. The closure will follow the Sept. 30 end of the county's other hotel temporary shelter, the 80-room Best Western Como Park that housed women and couples. Like Capitol Ridge, it also opened in July 2020 and has been near or at capacity during its entire run.
County officials say closing the hotel shelters makes sense operationally and financially, and that trying to get everyone a safe place to stay continues to be at the heart of their response to homelessness during the pandemic. The county's effort went into overdrive in spring 2020 as area homelessness agencies scaled back capacity at their shelters because of social-distancing guidelines. Many of those people without housing ended up at the temporary shelters.
$913,000 A MONTH
The county says its other emergency shelters in St. Paul — Mary Hall at the former Dorothy Day Center, Stub Hall on the Luther Seminary campus and Bethesda, the former hospital — all have space to accommodate some of those who were at the hotels.
They note that both Higher Ground and Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul have begun increasing capacity, which shrank in mid-2020 because of social distancing. The county's Safe Space shelter in St. Paul also continues to provide emergency overnight shelter for up to 64 single adults.
By closing the hotel shelters, Ramsey County can stretch out the $26 million in federal COVID-19 funds that were allocated for addressing homelessness during the pandemic and have since dried up, said Keith Lattimore, director of housing stability. He said the county initially was set to shutter all five of its temporary shelters this past spring, but that the continuing pandemic changed the plan to one of saving dollars by "consolidating bed space to meet what we actually need."
So the county notified the two hotels they were opting out of the leases, which were to expire next May. To run the two shelters, the county spent $913,000 in federal funds on average each month — a number that includes the leases, feeding residents three meals a day and other daily expenses such as paying staff to be on site and offer up stable, long-term housing and other services.
No one will end up back on the streets if they do not want to be, Lattimore said. Housing stability staff worked to find the 175 former hotel residents — about 30 remain at Capitol Ridge — either permanent housing or a spot to stay at other shelters.
"And some found places on their own," Lattimore said. "We can't obligate where they go. But no one is going without an offer to go someplace else."
WHAT OTHER COUNTIES DO
Dakota and Hennepin counties have also partnered with hotels during the pandemic to offer up rooms for people without housing. They point to concern that those who are experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk of dangerous complications from COVID because of underlying health conditions and the congregate settings of many permanent shelters. Meanwhile, the hotels welcomed the business.
Since March 2020, Hennepin County has funded protective shelters at four hotels in Minneapolis and Bloomington, housing 800 elders and medically vulnerable people. The city even considered buying an Extended Stay America in Bloomington in late 2020. The county decided not to proceed with the $13.3 million purchase, citing timing constraints associated with federal coronavirus funding and the complexity of the deal.
Dakota County began using hotels on a limited basis pre-COVID and in April 2020 transitioned to hotel shelters in lieu of closing its seasonal rotating church shelter. The county started with 40 rooms and by the end of 2020 increased the effort to 110 rooms across 14 hotels.
The program, which has led to 126 people finding permanent housing, is still in place and will remain so into 2022, according to Madeline Kastler, deputy director of housing and community resources.
Kastler said that although the hotel effort has been successful for meeting the need during the pandemic, it's not a long-term strategy in part because it is a higher-cost model. The county pays room rates, totaling about $3.1 million a year, through funding from a variety of sources, including state grants, county funds and federal CARES Act dollars.
Kastler said a recently convened housing leadership workgroup asked county staff to develop a plan for shelter and bring recommendations back to the county board early next year.
SEEKING STABLE SOLUTIONS
Ramsey County's decision to close the hotel shelters comes as COVID cases surge again and cold weather has arrived.
But it also comes as St. Paul continues to see a sharp drop in the number of people staying at outdoor encampments. The city has gone from a count of nearly 400 people in encampment sites in the summer of 2020 to less than 35 as of early this month, according to the city's Department of Safety and Inspections.
St. Paul officials say the drastic decrease is the result of the city's strategy of clearing encampments "when necessary" and under the premise that they are not safe or healthy options. They also point to their work with Ramsey County and nonprofit partners to find stable housing for people before they are evicted from camps.
The city says it will continue to close encampments as long as shelter beds are available.
Meanwhile, Lattimore said that by next spring the county won't have the federal COVID funds to operate the three remaining emergency shelters, which among them can house up to 336 people. Leases expire in May, so the goal is to get the shelter numbers down through permanent housing "so we don't have a group of individuals who we're trying to find a place for them to go," Lattimore said.
Getting more people into permanent shelters like Higher Ground is now an option. This month, the shelter increased capacity to 280 adults a night, up from the scaled-back number of 178 that began in May 2020, said Wendy Underwood, vice president of social justice advocacy and engagement at Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
"Our shelter staff recognized the need, even with the COVID risks, to figure out how to safely expand," she said. "And then the closure of Capitol Ridge also just makes that much more important."
Underwood said safety measures at their shelters include extensive cleaning, staggered meal times, vaccinations, daily health screenings, and COVID tests and retests. They've worked, she said, noting that less than 1 percent of the people in its single-adult programs have tested positive for the virus.
OUT OF THE COLD
At Capitol Ridge, as soon as one guest checked out, another soon arrived on a referral from other emergency shelters, said Dedrick Jenkins, who manages the site. The county has used Capitol Ridge as a "step-up" shelter, welcoming residents who followed the rules at other shelters and giving them a room that includes a double bed, bathroom, TV, small refrigerator and microwave.
Up until a year and a half ago, Jenkins worked in Ramsey County social services. He is among several county employees who were reassigned from other departments to fill new roles that emerged because of the pandemic.
"I love it," he said. "Just to see smiles on people's faces, knowing that they're safe and not out in the cold climate, and that they're starting to work on some of the issues they didn't have access to when they were living in the tents."
People like Stephen Washington, who's been staying at the hotel for eight months. From a south-facing window of his fifth-floor room, the 56-year-old has a view of the Cathedral of St. Paul and also Mary Hall, which referred him to Capitol Ridge.
"Going from there to here was a blessing," he said. "I've been able to get myself back from this depression thing I went through."
A roof over his head his helped him keep a job at a plating company in Minneapolis and a car to get back and forth. And, despite a criminal history, which caused rejections when looking for housing, he recently landed an apartment in Columbia Heights.
"This place here really set the tone for me for a good future," he said.