How COVID-19 Has, and Hasn’t, Changed Life for Minnesota’s Homeless

The Twin Cities were already feeling pressure to address a record-high number of homeless and unsheltered residents—and then a rampant virus enveloped the globe

Illustration by Jon Krause

Antione Henry says he used to judge homeless people using computers at the library. “‘What kind of idiots are these guys? Just hanging out at the library?’” He laughs bitterly. “Well, they’re actually on the internet, looking for jobs.” Now, Henry has been hanging out, too.

A couple back surgeries put the 55-year-old North Minneapolis native out of work for two years. His $50,000 in savings dried up surprisingly fast. He became homeless, and now spends his days applying for lower-level jobs in his previous line of work, after having owned a debt-collection agency. When we talked in March, he had been staying at a Union Gospel Mission shelter in St. Paul since June.

Henry spent two days of a recent Minneapolis summer unsheltered, sleeping on a stranger’s porch to stay out of the rain, and waking early enough to avoid getting caught. “I wasn’t a person that would walk over you,” he says, describing how he used to view homeless people. “But I did look at you different.”

Today, Henry is just one in the state’s record-high number of homeless. Two summers ago, every day, Minnesotans drove over the Franklin-Hiawatha homeless encampment, a small village of tents lining southbound Highway 55 right under I-94. Also known as the “Wall of Forgotten Natives,” it brought rare visibility to the issue. News outlets covered the fires, the fights, and the overdoses. That winter, a temporary Navigation Center helped many transition, although many also ended up back on the streets.

A year after that encampment dispersed, the narrow strip in south Minneapolis looked unremarkable again. Then, on December 14, 2019, Native American activists erected a teepee there.

They declared that the state and city were not doing enough. In October 2018, the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation had counted more than 10,000 homeless in Minnesota, with about 2,600 living outside or in places not meant for occupancy. This marked a new high: a 10% jump in homelessness and a 62% spike in unsheltered individuals since 2015. “People should be alarmed and know that it’s solvable,” Senta Leff, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, told the Star Tribune.

Advocates said homelessness in the metro had gotten worse since the encampment. Shelter capacity has not met the need, according to Wilder, which also found that more and more homeless have reported serious mental illness or chronic physical conditions since 2000. Substance addiction folded in an opioid epidemic, those like Henry—who can now manage his back pain—struggle to bounce back, and at the core of the problem is the Twin Cities’ very landscape.

Since 2008, a buildup of tony high-rises and steepening rents, in a hotbed of pricey single-family units, has exploded into a full-blown affordable-housing crisis. Newcomers pour in faster than public and private developers build homes. Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness recently counted a shortfall of about 60,000 low-income units. “We lose more affordable housing than we gain on a monthly basis,” says Michael Goze, CEO of the American Indian Community Development Corporation (AICDC), a social-services organization combating the issue’s disproportionate impact on local Native American communities.

If measures weren’t taken to respond quickly, the activists said, there would be another encampment. It sounded like both a rebuke and a not-in-my-backyard prod: It’s going to happen again.

Braced for Winter

Days later, Gov. Tim Walz slapped down about $5 million. It was a short-term, fast-acting, unprecedented remedy called the Minnesota Homeless Fund. “Until we fix housing for all Minnesotans, we must also find safe places for them to be,” Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan announced, while stressing the danger of dipping temperatures. Through April, 350 shelter beds rolled out statewide, with 250 in the metro, plus supplies, staff, and new facilities.

With some of that support, the AICDC opened a drop-in center in Minneapolis. “I don’t know if they’ve gotten to $5 million yet, but it’s not a lot of money,” Goze said in early March. “The state of Minnesota does not spend enough money on the homeless issue that we have.” Stephanie Battle, director of community impact at the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, which administered the fund, says, in the long run, “It won’t make a dent.”

Still, it was “doing unbelievably well,” Goze notes. In about a month, more than 1,000 people rotated through the AICDC’s drop-in center. They showered, ate, picked up clean underwear and socks. Some napped, using the center’s 25 recliners, then moved on, making room for newcomers. Others who fear getting sick from drug withdrawal decline help. Still, the AICDC had to open other parts of the building to not turn anyone away.

Spring approached, and a big encampment didn’t seem likely. At least, not on the scale of Franklin-Hiawatha, which, at its peak, hosted more than 200 tents. “You’ll see a lot of scattered-site tents,” says Autumn Dillie, an outreach worker with the AICDC. “So, you’ll see one tent pop up over here, another one pop up over here.” For the most part, she says, landowners—including the City of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Transportation—appeared to be cracking down. Goze had recently noticed tents disappear from Franklin Avenue.

Either way, summer would bring its usual stresses. Heat stroke and dehydration, Goze says, can make it as dangerous as winter. Dillie had helped rally a huge, first-of-its-kind nighttime outreach group that winter, of 17 organizations combing the streets, offering medical attention, and taking people to shelters. As the weather warmed, she wanted to double their efforts to twice a month.

Unseen Spring

March hit its stride, a thaw felt palpable, and as the Homeless Fund began petering out, Minnesota all but shut down.

A new disease was spreading worldwide. Everything about COVID-19 sounded frightening: a novel strain of the coronavirus, against which we lacked both a vaccine and natural immunity, whose symptoms made it look like the flu or the common cold. Community transmission ratcheted Minnesota’s case load higher and higher. Experts called for social distancing—to keep interactions no closer than 6 feet apart. Gov. Walz restricted restaurants, cafés, and bars to pick-up and delivery service, and issued a “stay at home” order. He warned residents to prepare for “a winter, not a blizzard” of setbacks.

Dillie woke on March 16 to an email from St. Stephen’s, a local nonprofit to end homelessness. The email included a 52-minute PowerPoint from Los Angeles County. It ran through items for an outreach kit: disposable gloves and thermometers, water-tight plastic bags for contaminated garbage, bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and so on.

Already, Dillie had given away her last half-a-bottle of hand sanitizer, to a young woman holding a sign on the street. “She had no idea why I was giving her the bottle,” Dillie says. “I had to give her a quick rundown of the disease that’s spreading. It’s absolutely terrifying.”

If her clients needed her, those on the street typically called. But her mobile phone wasn’t blowing up, even as the rest of the world seemed to be. “Some of them don’t own a TV. Some of them don’t read the newspaper—a lot of them don’t,” she says. “They deal with real-life problems, so watching the news or watching the TV isn’t something that they do.”

Shelters were caught off guard. “I don’t think there had been any discussion of a pandemic,” says Tracy Berglund, executive director of Catholic Charities, one of the Twin Cities’ largest social-services nonprofits. “We have no template,” concurs Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services, another shelter provider. An epidemiologist he talked with reached back to the 1918 flu epidemic to find a comparison.

If anyone needed to know what was going on, it was the homeless population. People 55 and older make up the fastest-growing segment of Minnesota’s homeless, and the U.S. fatality rate by COVID-19 for those 55 to 64 hovers between 1% and 3%. Compounding that, homeless individuals often have weak immune systems due to poor nutrition, irregular sleep, and chronic illness. On March 20, Walz announced a special, month-long enrollment period for MNsure, for qualified candidates without health insurance.

Communicable disease, by itself, is not new to those experiencing homelessness. Tuberculosis and MRSA can rip through encampments, and shelter vets recalled the especially bad outbreak of SARS, another coronavirus, in the early 2000s.

“Often, the perception of the response to homelessness is to provide shelter. But that’s not a suitable living arrangement for an individual,” says David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. “There are underlying risks to having a lot of people in congregate settings.”

Some of the Twin Cities’ homeless were already contending with Hepatitis A, a contagious liver infection, by the time the novel coronavirus hit. Unlike COVID-19, though, Hepatitis A has a vaccine. Dillie and her colleagues carry it with them on their night outings.

For now, the only COVID protocol stressed prevention. By the time Walz declared a peacetime state of emergency, though, the AICDC was out of hand sanitizer. At Simpson Housing’s 90-guest shelter, where beds are close together and meals communal—as in most shelters—social distancing was “frankly not realistic,” Horsfield says. Staff nonetheless encouraged person-to-person buffers, handed out meals one at a time, actively disinfected surfaces, and cut volunteer ranks.

Union Gospel Mission opened 24 shelter rooms for quarantine, and, to maintain mental health services, started teletherapy sessions, wiping down the phones after each call. Catholic Charities took temperatures at the door of Higher Ground, their shelter complex in St. Paul. They limited tables to two chairs, wrapped plastic around bunks as makeshift sneeze partitions, and restricted eating times to 15 to 20 minutes.

Outside, overnight train and bus services came to a halt. Malls, libraries, and community centers closed. The homeless had nowhere else to turn. One night brought in 150 more people than usual for dinner at Higher Ground. They had to start turning people away.

Living Between

“If it wasn’t for the information we are being provided by [Union Gospel Mission], I don’t think anybody, really, would know what’s going on,” Antione Henry says. He and other shelter guests latched onto the TV when the news broke. But a week in, precautions have entered routine: sanitize hands at the door, sleep head-to-toe. And more familiar concerns have reasserted themselves.

With public transit reducing services, Henry fears he won’t be able to take the train through Minneapolis to visit his two sons in Osseo. He can’t visit the Hennepin County Veterans Services office, either, to look for work. “When you come into a shelter, everyone—and I don’t care who you are—has set in their mind what they got to do, and what timeframe they’re trying to get out of here,” he says. “This just slows down everything.”

He’s had no luck on job-hunting sites like Indeed and Monster. One economist has described the novel-coronavirus effect as an “economic tsunami.” Layoffs have blighted certain industries. Folks are watching their incomes slip away, “and that, more than anything else, is what people experiencing homelessness have in common,” Hewitt says.

Down the line, Hewitt wonders how many might become homeless due to COVID-19. “We have great concerns of the additional pressure that we’re going to see coming into the [shelter] system in the not-so-distant future,” he says. “This should push all of us to see shelter as a piece of the process in how we respond to homelessness—but it should never be the end point that we’re aiming for.”

The pandemic could place many in predicaments similar to what Henry faced a few years ago. “The truth of the matter is, a lot of people are just a paycheck away from being homeless,” Henry says, “and they don’t realize it.”

Action and Reaction

Like Washington state, California, and New York, Minnesota acted fast, pushing through measures to both build and move.

Ramsey County put $1.8 million into two temporary quarantine and isolation facilities, for up to 200. Hennepin County set aside $3 million to lease “non-shared living units.” Officials started placing older homeless into Bloomington hotel rooms right away. A $4.4 million Minnesota Disaster Recovery Fund went out as grants to local nonprofits through the Minnesota Council on Foundations and the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation. The governor ended up putting evictions on pause, to freeze that month’s additions to homelessness.

A Hennepin County Board meeting laid out three main goals: Find accommodations for those who have tested positive—or have been tested at all; remove high-risk individuals from shelters; and shore up housing and shelter programs.

The Hennepin County aid proved “tremendous,” Horsfield says. Almost all their guests 60 and older got to transfer to hotel rooms. Berglund guesses that Catholic Charities sent over about 40, of the 130 or so who moved immediately.

“I mean, it’s terrible,” Horsfield pivots, “that we’ve got people who are more than 60 years old sleeping in shelter beds. That being said, to get those folks who are most vulnerable into a safer environment is absolutely the right thing to do.”

The financial burden was huge. “Aside from the leasing of hotels, for the nonprofits that are operating shelters, there are staff shortages, they’re paying overtime, they’re paying hazard pay,” Hewitt says. “Costs are going up across the board just to deliver the same services, in addition to the very specific measures we’ve had to take in response.”

Simpson Housing added $11,000 to weekly operating expenses. Catholic Charities tried to eke out incentive pay. Simpson went to 24 hours, as did other shelters, and started catering meals. None of their suppliers had masks or hand sanitizer—“like gold at the moment,” Horsfield says—but they were able to order hand-washing stations from Biffs. They had done this before, in 2019, when Simpson ran the Navigation Center, transitioning homeless people out of the Franklin-Hiawatha encampment.

The comparison is not lost on Horsfield. “These crises surface all sorts of other things,” he reflects. “It’s putting a flashlight in the corners of some dusty, dark rooms where we, as a society, tend to leave the lights off.”

Flattening the Curve

The threat of COVID-19 and its spread has already left legacies. Among losses and unemployment, those less affected will recall interrupted lifestyles: the cabin fever, the stocked pantries, the toilet-paper panic. “I think it helps people imagine more,” Berglund says. “What would it be like if I was staying in a congregate shelter with 250 people, where social distancing is a challenge? What would it be like if I had to be out during the day and there aren’t many places to go? And why is it that we have this many people with no housing whatsoever?

“I’m hoping people are asking those questions,” she adds, “because it doesn’t make sense to us.”

As many of us detailed our new cooped-up lives on Facebook, things at Simpson Housing’s shelter did not feel tangibly different, Horsfield notes. Guests conversed, played board games, savored meals. To live without much privacy, in close quarters, homeless people must find a headspace that “makes it possible without going crazy,” he says, and that can make the virus seem like “not a terribly big deal for a lot of folks.”

He imagines what it will be like when things improve. We will have to move 70-year-olds out of hotel rooms and back into shelter beds, or onto the street. “I think that’s going to be a ‘come to Jesus’ moment for a lot of people,” he says.

Quarantine efforts delayed review of a bonding bill in the state legislature, wherein Gov. Walz proposed more than $275 million in affordable-housing projects. A group of lawmakers had just pushed along a bill for a record-breaking $500 million in subsidized units. In a maverick approach, a Forest Lake church had suggested a village of “tiny houses” for the chronically homeless in January.

Of course, the Franklin-Hiawatha encampment could not come back without risking public health. And yet, between April and May, a designated “Camp Quarantine” sprung up near the light-rail line in south Minneapolis. More than 100 homeless have again gathered on Hiawatha Avenue. With shelters crowded, this familiar-looking array of tents struck many as a safer bet, according to the Star Tribune. But the tents are fairly close together, and there are no hygiene facilities. (Metro Transit officials are reportedly keeping an eye on the situation.)

Summer will press on, and activists will have coronavirus-related measures to rally around. Disagreements will resume, blaming homelessness on affordable housing, addiction, cyclical trauma, and all of the above.

Hewitt looks at the big picture. “Homelessness does not define people. It is not a personal failing. It’s a mass problem,” he says. “It’s that housing is too expensive and income is too low. When we can get people into permanent, supportive housing—housing that’s affordable, with some kind of case-management support for them—they succeed. Even people who have been homeless 10, 11, 12 years can be successful.”

He notes a 90% success rate among those who find housing. “You can’t get clean if you’re sleeping in a doorway,” he says. “You can’t address your mental health concerns if you are in a congregate setting with 100 other people around you.” Affordable housing frees up shelters for emergencies like this one, arguably making it cost-effective, too.

Dillie’s first response, on March 16, was simply to get people inside. “To take a shower, to have human dignity, to wash their hands, to use the bathroom, and to get checked out,” she says.

Days later, Henry was already thinking about his next step, and getting ready to sell all the furniture he had in storage. Union Gospel has been helping him look for work and housing. He feels safe, and grateful, and anxious to move on.

“With this happening, you don’t know how much longer it’s going to take you to get out of here,” he says. “[Shelters] try to take a lot of the pressures of everyday life off. It will never be the same as having your own place. If you’ve got your own place, you can go in, shut your door, and just leave the outside world and whatever’s going on.”

How to help: Click here for a list of ways you can donate or volunteer your time to help Minnesota’s homeless.