Minnesotans experiencing homelessness at grave risk unless we act now

A homeless encampment has been established near Hiawatha Ave. and Lake St. in Minneapolis. Some people who are homeless are avoiding shelters because they fear the COVID-19. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnestoa Reformer.

Time is running out for persons experiencing homelessness. Our leaders in state and local government must take bold and comprehensive action now. Without it, many of our neighbors without a home will die. 

Gov. Tim Walz’s order directing Minnesotans to stay at home is simple: We are asked to stay at home for the benefit of one another — especially for those who are elderly or have an underlying health condition. 

But what if you don’t have a home with a front door and a key? What if you go to work every day but you still can’t afford an apartment, so you live in your car at a rest stop? What if you are in your late fifties, diagnosed with respiratory disease and don’t have a place to plug in your nebulizer equipment because you sleep in a tent? What if “under the bridge” is your address and you have been diagnosed with lupus and lung cancer and used a colostomy bag? What then?

Walz, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, specified “encampments should not be subject to sweeps or disbandment by state or local governments, as such sweeps or disbandment increase the potential risk and spread of COVID-19.” The order says folks on the street can’t be chased out of one location after another, which in turn helps them stay in place. So they aren’t infected with COVID-19 or passing it to others after being forced to move around. So they can “stay at home” in their tent if they are sick with any symptoms. 

The need is great. You may not realize it because constant displacement keeps the unsheltered invisible, but we need to do more than just leave people alone. The July 2019 point in time count — a census of all unsheltered individuals in Hennepin County — found 723 people living in places unfit for human habitation. They were on the street, sleeping in cars, living under bridges, staying on transit and any other number of inhumane places. 

Persons experiencing homelessness are at high level of risk of the ravages of COVID-19 due to age and underlying medical conditions, and they are at a greatly diminished capacity to avoid contracting the virus and being able to take care of themselves once they do. 

The number of people living outside will likely increase. The transit system — used as shelter of last resort — is no longer available. To prevent an outbreak in jails, inmates are being released. A reduction in shelter capacity to allow for social distancing — along with a general fear of residing in a congregate setting — will all contribute to higher numbers of people living outside. If large-scale infections shutter our larger shelters, many more will opt to self-isolate outside. 

Too much time has passed already. The current response is too passive and will not prevent the suffering that will occur unless more is done. We need our elected officials to lead a multi-level crisis response. The state has money available; cities and counties can apply to create spaces for those experiencing homelessness. We need direction and leadership, including the following: 

  • A more comprehensive plan from Hennepin County and Minneapolis to secure single dwelling units, such as hotels, for unsheltered and sheltered individuals.
  • Designated locations with hygiene services, potable water, toilets, and basic services, such as trash removal, for individuals living in tents or vehicles that allow for CDC spacing recommendations.
  • Full enforcement of the ban on displacement and sweeps by law enforcement along with clearly defined locations where individuals are not allowed to shelter to provide predictability.  
  • Personal protective equipment for all outreach workers and for those living outside along with needed temporary shelters such as tents. 
  • Police should be discouraged from using low-level criminal activity (i.e. toileting outside when there is no toilet) as carve-outs against the ban on criminalizing homelessness.

We are in crisis response mode. We must act to reduce the harm caused by previous inaction; otherwise, predictable deaths will be traced directly to a failure to take the clear and difficult actions we need our elected officials to take – today.