Ramsey County eyes another potential homeless crisis as $53 million in emergency shelter funding runs dry

After working her regular overnight shift at a convenience store off Interstate 94, Sonya Apple sat down in a downtown St. Paul stairwell and cried. She was hungry, homeless and feeling ill — the first signs, she would later learn, of COVID-19.

A St. Paul Police officer drove up and invited her to join the city’s deputy mayor and county officials on Kellogg Boulevard, where shuttle vans were taking destitute residents of a sizable tent city to emergency shelters assembled virtually overnight throughout the city.

Apple, who had avoided downtown shelters out of concern for her own safety, accepted the offer, the first step in a two-year journey toward stability. It’s an active endeavor, as in she’s not fully there yet.

Still, while living in a former seminarian dormitory at Luther Seminary’s Stub Hall, she’s finally had time to grieve the younger sister she lost to suicide in 2018, and her 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, whom she lost custody of two years before that.

“It’s helped mentally, physically, spiritually, just having a place to call home,” said Apple, who figures she and her 43 neighbors would otherwise be out on the streets.

TEMPORARY SITES SHUTTERED

That’s not necessarily a far-flung likelihood.

Since December 2020, Ramsey County officials have scrambled to relocate upwards of 1,800 homeless residents from outdoor tents, public parks and light-rail train cars to temporary shelters backed by $53 million in federal COVID relief dollars and state and county funding.

Many of those temporary sites have since shuttered as funding runs out.

Barring a major financial injection, both 70-bed Stub Hall in South St. Anthony Park and 134-bed Mary Hall in downtown St. Paul could be the next to close in late June. Hennepin County ended its temporary emergency shelter program a year ago. Ramsey County’s Bethesda Shelter, at Fairview’s former Bethesda Hospital, closed earlier this month. Freedom House, a day center for the homeless operating out of a converted fire station on St. Paul’s West Seventh Street, closed its doors on May 8.

HOMELESS RESIDENTS FROM OUTSIDE RAMSEY COUNTY

During the course of the pandemic, as county officials have settled homeless residents into emergency beds, they’ve made what some might call a surprising discovery.

Far fewer than half of those surveyed said their last known permanent address before the streets was St. Paul, or even Ramsey County. Some 29 percent of residents said they came from outside of the county, with as many as half of that population hailing from Hennepin County. Another 18 percent said they had come in from out of state. And for 11 percent, their last permanent address was unclear.

In other words, only 763 out of the 1,837 people surveyed through Jan. 29 could claim St. Paul or Ramsey County as their longtime home. The county didn’t just step up to house its homeless during the pandemic. County officials have been housing homeless residents from across Minnesota, and beyond.

“Right there it shows it’s a regional problem, and it’s frustrating because it shows there hasn’t been a regional approach to tackling it,” Jennifer O’Rourke, the county’s director of government relations, said in an interview Wednesday.

No one was turned away, added Keith Lattimore, director of Ramsey County’s Housing Stability Department. “When folks were in need, we addressed that. And right now we’re just hoping that we can continue to serve people.”

COUNTY SEEKS HELP FROM STATE BUDGET SURPLUS

Lattimore acknowledged the outlook is not promising.

With a deadline looming Monday, state lawmakers are in the final hours of divvying up on paper what could be an $8 billion state budget surplus. A House bill introduced by state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, with the support of the city and county delegation, called for funding Ramsey County’s emergency shelter operations at up to $14.5 million annually for five years. A compromise proposal called for $8 million in annual funding, and then $6 million.

MORE: Homeless encampments growing again in St. Paul as relief funding runs out

As of the latter part of the week, the Republican-led Senate had yet to propose funds.

These are “trade offers,” said O’Rourke on Wednesday.

“I would attribute that to all of the competing interests going on up here,” O’Rourke said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people in the past 24 hours. We keep working it. We’ve had the whole Ramsey County delegation sign on in support of this bill. That’s 16 House members, and on the Senate side Sen. Jim Abeler, (a Republican) from Anoka signed onto the bill.”

Those efforts have also received backing from state Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester.

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Among a wide hodgepodge of funding sources, Ramsey County has kept its emergency programs afloat through an internal loan to itself of $5.2 million. On Tuesday, county manager Ryan O’Connor plans to return to the county’s Board of Commissioners with another request for $5 million, with the hope that some of the funding will be paid back by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The county is having to go back to the board, as we’ve exhausted everything and beyond that we had to spend,” Lattimore said.

The alternative could be more people sleeping on St. Paul’s streets this winter, even if many of them are not from St. Paul.

The county funded as many as 500 temporary emergency beds at a time, with additional beds and services provided by nonprofit partners. St. Paul and Ramsey County have committed to backing $74 million in “deeply” affordable housing aimed at the very poor, with the goal of transitioning residents out of emergency situations and into more permanent housing.

Still, not everyone is ready to make that leap. Jim Langer, manager of the county’s housing stability department, said he’s already moved some Stub Hall residents into a four-month transitional housing program, with the hope of readying them for more permanent arrangements.

ZUMBA FOR THE HOMELESS

Sonya Apple talks about the opportunities shelters such as Luther Seminary’s Stub Hall in St. Paul have provided her. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Apple, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe of South Dakota, has lived in the area since the 1990s. She said that before the pandemic, she rode the Green Line light rail and the A Line rapid bus after her overnight work shifts just to get some rest. That changed on that seemingly hopeless day in January 2020 when she agreed to board the county’s excursion van at Kellogg Mall Park.

After that, Apple said she spent 10 lonely days in temporary respite care at the former Bethesda Hospital, which Ramsey County outfitted in part for COVID-positive residents. That shelter — which housed as many as 132 people at at time — closed this month when relief funding ran dry.

Apple later spent a year at a Best Western Hotel through the county’s hotel voucher program, which she liked because she had access to her own private bathroom. She put herself through an online Zumba course that helped settle her racing thoughts, got back onto a regular schedule of contacting her probation officer and kept up with outpatient treatment. The hotel voucher program ended last fall.

For the past few months, Apple has resided at another county-backed facility: Stub Hall. She shares a small second-floor dorm room with her boyfriend, grabs her meals from a downstairs hall and enjoys the fresh air and pastoral backdrop of the college-like campus, making it a goal to do something productive every day.

On June 22, Stub Hall, too, will run its course.

“I’m already starting to plan for the closure,” Langer said. “I’ve closed every other site. I don’t want to close this one.”

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