Hennepin and Ramsey counties authorize $4.8 million for quarantine spaces for homeless

hennepin county board
Hennepin County Board holds a special meeting to address the outbreak of COVID-19. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties will spend up to $4.8 million to provide space for isolation and quarantine for homeless people and others who need it as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 grows every day.

As the Reformer reported Monday, homeless shelters are ill-equipped to stop the spread of the virus. Communal meals, lack of private living quarters and high turnover means social distancing is next to impossible for people experiencing homelessness. Most shelters aren’t funded to stay open during the day, which has implications for the general population’s health as homeless people are forced into public places to spend the day.

Homeless Minnesotans could also be at higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms given that many have compromised immune systems from chronic illnesses and often lack nutritious food and regular sleep.

The Ramsey County Board approved spending $1.8 million Tuesday to open two facilities for isolation and quarantine, with a total capacity of 200 (official documents below). The county has not yet worked out a host of details, like who will be asked or allowed to enter quarantine, but they hope to have the facilities open by the end of the week.

“We know that as people are being impacted, we need to make sure we’re caring for our homeless population,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo in an interview. “So we moved in advance of having all the details and exact plans.”

The Hennepin County Board unanimously approved spending up to $3 million Tuesday to provide quarantine and isolation space for people experiencing homelessness.

“Our most vulnerable folks really need to be taken care of right now and this does exactly that,” said Commissioner Angela Conley at the board meeting.

The need for shelter is sure to increase with Metro Transit temporarily halting its overnight service, where dozens of people sleep each night when shelters are full.

Hennepin County plans to lease spaces — possibly hotels — that have individual units with separate bathrooms and ideally separate ventilation systems. The county could lease spaces through December 31, 2020.

Seattle Times reported recently that King County, which is Seattle’s equivalent of Hennepin County, bought an EconoLodge and deployed modular units to be used to isolate or quarantine symptomatic people who might not have a home address or who are unable to stay at home. King County authorized spending over $19 million on quarantine and isolation units, according to Hennepin County staff who have been in contact with staff at King County.

More than 10,000 Minnesotans are homeless, according to the most recent Wilder survey. Around 1,600 are unsheltered — 300 of whom are children — meaning they are living outside or in places unfit for human habitation. Estimates place the number of homeless people across America at more than 500,000.

On Monday night, Board Chair Marion Greene declared a state of emergency through April 6, shuttering its public-facing services, including more than 40 libraries.

“These are unprecedented times. We’re working as fast as we can to respond as best we know how,” Greene said. “The measures we’re taking now both on an individual and systemic level are meaningful.They’ll save lives in the days to come.”

The board took action Tuesday to help its 9,000 employees who are affected by the closures or who become sick with COVID-19. Any employee who tests positive for COVID-19 or has a household member test positive will have two weeks of paid time off. Employees who are off work due to the state of emergency are allowed to borrow up to four weeks of paid time off. The county will “forgive” two weeks of paid time off after a year of work and another two weeks after the second year.

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