From her St. Paul hotel room overlooking Interstate 94, Colleen Stadt can see a small tent encampment of homeless people down near the highway.
“I think about them constantly,” said the 60-year-old Stadt. “[I think] about where I have come from in this journey, and I am just grateful.”
Stadt, who used to reside in a group shelter, has been staying in a room at the Best Western Plus Capitol Ridge hotel since last summer. It is one of two hotels Ramsey County has leased through June to add extra space for homeless residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. The county oversees space for 480 people, not including shelters run by community partners. There are 125 people, all of them over 60, living at the Best Western.
Keith Lattimore, director of Ramsey County’s new Housing Stability Department, said the county added the two hotel leases to its short-term housing options to address social distancing requirements that limit shelters to half capacity.
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Named to his position late last November, Lattimore said the department’s goal is to consolidate housing services and to reduce racially based economic disparities in Ramsey County.
Because of COVID-19, more people are experiencing financial hardship and housing instability, Lattimore said, adding that it costs twice as much to house everyone because of social distancing and safety requirements. Lattimore said the county is spending roughly $1 million per month to keep up with housing demand.
Stadt, who is from southern Minnesota, first found herself without a home about two years ago after a divorce. She was among the first shelter residents placed in more private accommodations because of her age and diabetes, which could make her more susceptible to a serious case of COVID-19.
She said the hotel has been a far nicer experience than the Twin Cities shelter she came from.
“There was noise all the time, somebody going in and out of the bathroom all the time,” Stadt said.
At the hotel, she’s getting better rest.
“It brings you up,” Stadt said. “It makes a lot of difference.”
Ramsey County officials say they have space for anyone who is experiencing homelessness to stay indoors.
“Our partner shelters are putting everything they have on the table with extended hours,” Lattimore said. “There’s really no room to say ‘no.’”
The county has relied partly on $8 million in CARES Act funds from the federal government to accommodate the nearly 500 people that community outreach workers are currently able to track as unsheltered. Under an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz, a city or county must offer anyone living in a tent a place to stay indoors before forcing them to leave an encampment.
“If everyone chose to come inside, we would probably be at our capacity or would exceed our capacity very easily,” Lattimore said.
He’s concerned that the amount of homelessness could double when pandemic-related eviction moratoriums are eventually lifted.
“Our goal is that maybe we get a second round of federal dollars and support or else we have to start scaling these [programs] down in the summer,” he said.
Lattimore said he’s noticed that with more living space and individualized planning for people experiencing homelessness, there’s been less conflict, more supportive services and more hope in most transitional living spaces.
“People feel like — ‘I’m still going somewhere,’” he said.
One of them is Roland Arnold, a 68-year-old man staying at the Best Western. He said he’s benefitted during his time at the hotel from housing resources, health care and financial assistance. He now feels more organized.
“If you have a plan, get a pencil, paper and write it down ... I don’t care how smart you think you are,” he said. “That way you can monitor your notes.”
Arnold’s goal is to save enough money to eventually get his own place.
Stadt, who’s also living at the Best Western, said she would write down a similar goal “if I could get a place and just relax.”