Gov. Walz orders Minnesotans to stay at home — what about those who don't have homes?

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The light rail has become a haven for the homeless late at night.
A few homeless people sleep in a light rail train in Bloomington in 2018. Hennepin County is moving homeless seniors and others in high-risk groups to hotels to isolate. Night shelters are preparing to stay open 24 hours a day, but it’s a heavy lift.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News 2018

Hennepin County has moved 140 seniors who are experiencing homelessness from congregate shelters into hotels to help protect them from the novel coronavirus. It plans to do the same this week for another 100 people who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

But there are a total of 1,400 people in shelters in Hennepin County, said David Hewitt, director of the county’s Office to End Homelessness. There were another 600 unsheltered people in the county as of January. The governor’s stay-at-home order, which goes into effect Friday night, exempts "individuals without a home” and says “they may move between emergency shelters, drop-in centers, and encampments" while the order is in place.

Shelters for single adults only operate at night, and the libraries and other places where people who are experiencing homelessness go during the day are closed. But Hewitt said nonprofits are doing what they can to help people experiencing homelessness shelter in place.

“This is a severe need and it's an extremely costly need, to ramp up those services to be able to provide that 24-hour setting so people can shelter in place,” Hewitt said. “Some shelters have already taken that step and are already incurring significant additional costs. So there's a huge need for those nonprofits to get additional support from the community.”

Minnesota lawmakers passed a $330 million COVID-19 response package Thursday that offers more than $30 million for homeless services. The governor is expected to sign the bill.

Last week, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners approved $3 million to pay for the hotel rooms now housing vulnerable individuals and to isolate homeless people who contract COVID-19. Hewitt said he is not aware of any cases within the homeless community. One person has been tested.

Several organizations have also established emergency funds to help Minnesota nonprofits weather the pandemic — that includes homeless service providers.

“The nonprofits in our community are stepping up and stepping into a space where their staff are under huge pressure. Their supply lines have been disrupted. They're not able to tap volunteers,” Hewitt said. “Anything that local community members can do to support their local nonprofits is just invaluable.”

Hewitt warned ongoing support would be needed as the pandemic fuels job losses.

“There's a moratorium on evictions, but that doesn't mean that those rental payments don't pile up,” he said. “We have great concern that a number of people are going to be thrown into crisis and tipped into housing instability and homelessness.”

For now, shelters are sanitizing their facilities more frequently and adapting offices and other spaces to accommodate social distancing, Hewitt said.

For those who are not in shelters, the county has installed portable hand-washing stations in downtown Minneapolis, and outreach workers are fanning out to offer information on staying safe.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full interview.

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