Most vulnerable leave homeless shelters just as COVID-19 arrives

Barbara Williams, 61, watches television in her hotel room. She is among hundreds of homeless seniors in Hennepin County to move out of shelters to limit their risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Three weeks ago, Barbara Williams moved out of a shelter in Minneapolis — where 15 women sleep on bunk beds in a large, open room —  and into a hotel suite with its own bathroom, queen-sized bed and TV.

Even though it’s an upgrade, Williams was worried about being socially isolated.

“I didn’t want to come at first because I’m a very lively person,” she said. “They finally talked me into doing it. They said it’s for my health, so I said ‘Okay.’ And I love it here.”

Williams, 61, is one of about 270 homeless seniors and people with compromised immune systems who are living in two hotels in Hennepin County to limit their risk of being exposed to COVID-19.

While most hotels across the country are empty or running skeleton crews, the suburban hotel where Williams is staying is bustling with about 170 guests who have left shelters. The Reformer is not revealing the name of the hotel to protect the safety and privacy of those who are living there.

It’s like a pop-up senior living community. There’s a veteran named Mike, 61, who spends his days reading the Bible or playing chess. There’s LaDale Floyd, 63, who’s working on writing a book in between teasing people and complaining about the food.

While the sick and vulnerable are protected in these hotels, Minnesota’s shelters are another matter: The lack of widespread testing means an outbreak could be growing undetected.

At the same time, shelters are seeing their budgets explode with the cost of protective equipment and staffing hours (including hazard pay bonuses) since volunteers have stopped coming. And some Minnesotans experiencing homelessness are now sleeping outside, afraid they’ll get infected if they risk staying in a shelter but without ready access to running water to do one of the most fundamental things to slow the spread: wash their hands.

Like cruise ships, nursing homes and prisons, shelters are virtually defenseless against the spread of the virus and can become so-called “hot spots” seemingly overnight.

But unlike cruise ships, nursing homes and prisons, most people staying in shelters must go out into the public during the day because shelters close in the morning. (The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light shelter received local funding to keep its chapel open during the day as well as provide daytime meals and portable toilets on the street in front. Simpson Housing also received additional funding to stay open 24-hours a day).

LaDale Floyd, 63, works on a book he’s writing. He is among hundreds of homeless seniors who have moved out of shelters and into hotel rooms during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Compounding shelters’ vulnerability is the fact that about half of people experiencing homelessness have chronic physical illnesses which make them more at risk of becoming very sick from COVID-19.

To date, the Minnesota Department of Health has confirmed four people staying in four different shelters have tested positive for COVID-19. All live in Hennepin County, where nearly half of the state’s roughly 10,000 homeless people reside.

The news is concerning, if expected. David Hewitt, Hennepin County’s director of the office to end homelessness, said he’s grateful that the county acted quickly.

The county approved leasing three hotels for its homeless population last month. Two hotels are used to prevent highly vulnerable people from becoming sick and a third provides isolation and quarantine for people awaiting test results or with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

So far, the county has spent $2.1 million on the effort, and expects it to cost $1.6 million a month going forward, which includes rent, staff and food. Ramsey County appropriated $1.8 million to buy a building for isolation and quarantine for homeless people.

The county’s strategy, Hewitt said, has been to take preemptive measures to remove high risk people from dangerous settings and get them into quarantine.

“The more we learn and the further we get into this crisis, the more I’m convinced our strategy is the right one,” he said.

In San Francisco, more than 90 residents and 10 staff members at a single shelter became sick and tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, the city’s Board of Supervisors ordered the mayor to lease more than 7,000 hotel rooms to provide isolation and quarantine space for the city’s entire homeless population.

As in California, Minnesota is only testing homeless people with symptoms, so it’s unclear how widespread COVID-19 is among the homeless population.

In Boston, when doctors tested everyone staying in one shelter — not just those with symptoms — they found more than a third of people tested positive for COVID-19, most of them asymptomatic.

Signs in a suburban hotel where around 170 homeless seniors and people with compromised immune systems have moved to limit their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Hennepin County’s plan for if — or when — a lot of people become sick with the coronavirus in a shelter is still developing. It’s unclear whether the county would provide everyone exposed with a hotel room or if the shelter would lock down like a cruise ship and keep everyone inside. In Chicago, a shelter transformed one of its wings into a large isolation space for 100 homeless people who have COVID-19.

Among the people it can track, Minnesota’s approach right now continues to be “test and trace.” Once a Minnesotan tests positive, people who have been potentially exposed are notified and advised to self-quarantine and monitor their symptoms but are not tested.

“It is not the Department of Health’s policy, in any setting, to test close contacts of people who have tested positive based solely on possible exposure,” Julie Bartkey, spokeswoman for the department, wrote in an email. “We have widespread community transmission and should assume large numbers of people in Minnesota have been exposed at some point.”

Hennepin County has tested 96 people across the three hotels it’s leasing, but doesn’t track how many homeless people have been tested overall. The state also doesn’t track negative test results, according to Bartkey, so it’s difficult to gauge how widespread testing has been.

Around 10 people currently in a hotel in Hennepin County in quarantine or isolation are sick with COVID-19 or awaiting test results.

For shelters, notifying people who may have been exposed is not always easy. The person who tests positive must authorize the Minnesota Department of Health to notify the shelter where they were staying because it’s protected medical information. Otherwise, the department may review the shelter’s roster and confirm if the person is among those who stayed there.

Leasing hotels has also eased the pressure on shelters across the Twin Cities, which usually fill up every night. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, about a third of homeless people reported being turned away from a shelter because of a lack of space over the course of a few months.

Some shelters have taken the opportunity to lower their capacity to allow people to spread farther apart while sleeping. Other shelters, not wanting to turn people away, have decided to allow people to take the spot of those who have moved into hotels.

A homeless encampment with about 10 tents formed along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. Encampments may not be cleared during the stay-at-home order. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Even while many people want to go to shelter, a large number have shunned them and chosen instead to camp along highways or bike paths. Unless they are older than 60 or have a compromised immune system, they aren’t eligible to move into the hotels leased by the county. Around a thousand people are estimated to live outside the shelter system in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, according to Wilder Research latest survey, although the actual number is likely higher.

Jennifer Hernandez has been camped along Hiawatha Avenue for over a month in what has grown into a small encampment some call “Camp Quarantine.” Hernandez was staying with relatives nearby, but they made her and two of her kids move out because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I wasn’t going to go (to shelter) because people come and go from all over the state,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been there before. Too much drama. It’s quieter here. It’s nicer, relaxing.”

There was also plenty of green space for her two kids to play before child protective services took them away. Hernandez doesn’t use drugs or alcohol but says the social worker who took her kids saw other people using drugs in the encampment.

“Just because we’re out here in a tent,” said Hernandez, who’s a member of the White Earth Nation. “They still got a roof over their head. They still got clothes. They got food. They got heat. They got a place to play.”

Native Americans are among those most likely to be homeless but are the least likely to use shelter. While Hernandez and others living in the encampment say they feel less likely to be exposed to the coronavirus out in the fresh air, they don’t have access to a bathroom where they can wash their hands.

Jennifer Hernandez (right) talks with a volunteer who brings meals to homeless people living in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Hernandez tries to keep a clean camp. She uses a bucket that she dumps in a nearby ditch or, when she can scrape together enough change, goes to the nearby Target and buys water and uses the bathroom.

Minneapolis rented portable toilets and hand-washing stations for people to use downtown, but outreach workers have pressured the city to provide more, especially near the growing encampment along Hiawatha and other places outside downtown.

“It was absolutely, 100% necessary once we started doing the shelter in place, and things started shutting down,” said Autumn Dillie, an outreach worker with the American Indian Community Development Corporation (AICDC). “It’s a basic right to have access to water and a bathroom.”

The city recently announced it would place several more portable toilets on the southside, while the AICDC plans to open its own hygiene station with portable showers like it did for the encampment along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues dubbed “The Wall of Forgotten Natives.”

All of this costs money, contributing to the ballooning budgets of cities and counties. The Legislature earmarked $26.5 million of its $330 million relief bill for shelters, but it still will not likely be enough to cover the increased costs of the pandemic.

Hennepin County hasn’t decided how long it will continue leasing the hotel rooms, although it has nearly wiped out its $10 million contingency fund and will next have to tap into its general fund. Only a portion of what they’re spending on the hotel rooms is likely to be reimbursed by state or federal dollars.

Barbara Williams moved out of a shelter in March and into a suburban hotel room for homeless seniors to limit the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The suburban hotel where Williams is staying goes through gallons of coffee and creamer a day. People are served three meals a day and are allowed to come and go as they please. They are not allowed outside guests in their rooms, to protect everyone from the virus.

While it’s not a shelter, the county does have stricter rules at the hotels than paying guests might have. For example, people aren’t allowed to drink alcohol in their rooms. More than 433 people have moved into hotels and of those 150 people have moved out, most on their own accord. Some people have been kicked out for breaking the rules, and once kicked out, people are not permitted back in.

Williams spends a lot of time in her room watching t.v., but she isn’t lonely like she feared.

“We all go outside and we smoke and I talk to people,” Williams said. “I have a couple of people here I call associates . . . I don’t say friends because then when you separate it’s kind of hard, so I say I just associate with people.”

The county is using the opportunity to connect people with social services and other benefits they may be eligible for. Guests may meet with a doctor or a spiritual leader over an iPad.

Williams hopes she can find a subsidized apartment that she can afford on her Social Security income before the county stops leasing her a room. In the meantime, she’s grateful for the safe, clean room she wakes up and goes to sleep in.

“I thank God for whoever did this,” Williams said. “I thank God to be here every day.”