What’s the cost of not sheltering homeless people during a pandemic?

According the Minneapolis Star Tribune, cost for sheltering the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic could hit $1 million per week for Hennepin County. Hennepin County has about 4,000 homeless residents, of whom about 400 are considered high risk because they are 55 and older. There have been strides to separate the high risk citizens…

Rogan [the county’s assistant administrator for operations] said the county currently has 306 beds that qualify as quarantine and isolation units, many of them in hotels. Already 190 are being used by individuals at high risk of contracting the virus, and another 19 are occupied by residents who are symptomic, he said.

But the infection is still in its early stages in the state, and the number of beds needed for the infected homeless could climb steeply.

But is cost our biggest concern right now? And is this an issue for Hennepin County to shoulder without help?

Another article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that in Minnesota in 2018 nearly 20,000 people a night experience homelessness. The article goes on to report…

“We are seeing an increase in the intensity and severity of homelessness,” said Michelle Decker Gerrard, who directed the study. “They have increased physical and mental health problems. We’re seeing more people on the street because shelters are full.”

The urgency was reflected in the executive order issued Wednesday by Gov. Tim Walz.

“Individuals without a home are exempt from the restrictions in this [shelter in place] executive order, and they may move between emergency shelters, drop in centers, and encampments,” the order said. “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 COVlD-19.”

So while the rest of Minnesota’s 5.6 million people shelter in place, what provisions are we making for the 20,000? Is it enough? Allowing people experiencing homelessness to move freely in the city, is a cheaper option than finding a way for them to shelter in place but doesn’t that create a great vulnerability for all Minnesotans? Paths will cross at the gas station, the grocery store, the hospital. Germs will spread.

Our own Monica Nilsson is quoted in the article…

Monica Nilsson, shelter director of Strong Tower Parish and Elim Church Shelters in northeast Minneapolis, said Wednesday that current community practice is “to concentrate adults in crowded shelters 12 hours a day, and then release them into the public to wander and potentially spread or contract COVID-19 12 hours a day.”

“I’m glad the Legislature has the opportunity to mitigate this,” she said.

She’s right; now is the time for the Legislature to invest in the safety of all of us. It might cost $1 million per week in Hennepin County to shelter the homeless but that will save lives in and outside of the homeless community. Curbing the spread of COVID-19 will also expedite a return to business as usual, which is an investment in local economic development.

Investment is required at the national, state, and local levels in the public and private sectors.

Published by Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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