Hennepin County will spend millions more on hotels for homeless, housing assistance

    hennepin county government center
    The Hennepin County Government Center in March 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

    Hennepin County commissioners on Tuesday approved spending another $4 million on COVID-19 response efforts, which includes moving 200 people out of the county’s two largest homeless shelters and into hotel rooms to reduce the risk of an outbreak.

    The additional funding is on top of the more than $2 million the county has spent on hotel rooms for about 270 homeless seniors and those with underlying medical issues. The ongoing effort will cost the county $1.6 million per month, which pays for the hotel rooms, meals, staffing and personal protective equipment.

    While that initial effort protected the most vulnerable, hundreds of homeless Minnesotans in the county remain in congregate shelter settings ripe for a coronavirus outbreak. Dozens of people sleep on bunk beds or pads just a few feet from one another in large rooms.

    “We believe this is critical to prevent an outbreak in one of the large scale shelters,” County Administrator David Hough told the board.

    So far, four homeless Hennepin County residents at four different shelters have tested positive for COVID-19. The number of people infected is likely higher since only people with symptoms are tested because of testing shortages.

    The county’s two largest shelters — the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light and Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground — together provide beds for about 700 people each night. Leasing hotel rooms for 200 people will allow for additional social distancing in both shelters, helping reduce the chance of a large outbreak like those seen on cruise ships, in nursing homes and shelters across the country. At a shelter in San Francisco, similarly sized to Harbor Light, more than 90 residents and 10 staff members became infected.

    A large outbreak of COVID-19 among the homeless population could be disastrous for the county’s budget and health systems given that around half of homeless people have physical conditions making them more likely to become very sick.

    A recent study suggests that homeless people would be two to four times more likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 than the general population and two to three times more likely to die.

    Housing assistance for 1,000 families

    The county board also approved providing $240,000 in emergency rental assistance for low-income residents. The county expects to receive an additional $1.5 million in federal funding for the effort this week through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security “CARES” Act.

    The funding will help around 1,000 households with an average payment of $1,550. Eligible households include those making less than 50% of the area-median income. For a three-person household, that would be $46,550.

    Hennepin County is targeting suburban residents with its program, since the city of Minneapolis will provide $3 million in housing assistance for its low-income residents. Minneapolis began accepting applications in mid-April.

    The county also approved spending $500,000 to help low-income homeowners making less than 80% of the area-median income, or $70,650 for a three-person household. The assistance is to prevent tax forfeiture and rehabilitate homes. Recipients would agree to transfer ownership of their land to the City of Lakes Community Land Trust, which limits how much the land can be resold for, helping ensure it remains affordable.

    Tax penalties waived

    The Hennepin County Board approved waiving late penalties on property tax payments for two months until July 15. Property taxes are due May 15 and fund a host of agencies including county and city services, schools, roads, public transportation and even mosquito control.

    Responding to COVID-19 has drained the county’s $10 million contingency fund in just a few months. That forced Hennepin County commissioners to vote to replenish the contingency fund with $10 million from its general fund.

    So far, much of what the county has spent responding to COVID-19 has been reimbursed by state or federal funds. Of the $6.7 million the county has spent to date, $6.2 million has been covered by federal and state grants.

    The future, however, is less certain. As demands for services have risen, the county has watched its revenue decline. Congressional Democrats pushed for billions in additional aid to state and local governments in the latest COVID-19 relief package but were ultimately unsuccessful in getting the funding included in the $484 billion bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday.

    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is a reporter for the Reformer focusing on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.