Section 601(a) of the Social Security Act, as added by section 5001 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”), established the Coronavirus Relief Fund (the “Fund”) and appropriated $150 billion to the Fund. Under the CARES Act, the Fund is to be used to make payments for specified uses to States and certain local governments; the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories; and Tribal governments. Hennepin County received a direct payment out of the Fund from the U.S. Treasury.
The CARES Act provides that money from the Fund may only be used to cover costs that
- are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19);
- were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27, 2020 (the date of enactment of the CARES Act) for the State or government; and
- were incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020 and ends on December 30, 2020.
The available guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury provides examples of eligible expenditures, including expenses for quarantining individuals; expenses for care for homeless populations provided to mitigate COVID-19 effects and enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions; and expenses associated with the provision of economic support in connection with the COVID-19 emergency. Assets purchased with payments from the Fund may be retained, if the purchase of the asset was consistent with the limitations on the eligible use of funds (as outlined above). In addition, although Fund payments cannot generally be used for capital improvement projects that broadly provide potential economic development, Fund payments may be used for capital improvement projects that are necessary expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, such as the expenses of establishing temporary public medical facilities and other measures to increase COVID-19 treatment capacity or improve mitigation measures, including related construction costs.
Hennepin County began leasing out local hotel rooms in March as protective housing for homeless adults with underlying health conditions, as a proactive measure to prevent the sort of large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks that have devastated homeless populations in other cities, including Boston, New York and San Francisco. This temporary hotel housing was expanded to additional homeless adults, in order to reduce population by more than 50% at the county’s largest shelters, which are considered fertile territory for the transmission of the virus. Units include temporary housing for people in congregate shelter settings without capacity to self-quarantine in order to follow CDC recommendations for mitigation, and temporary housing for people in congregate shelter settings who have COVID-like symptoms or who are COVID-positive and who cannot provide their own spaces to self-isolate in order to follow CDC recommendations.
In addition to supporting people experiencing homelessness in shelters, Hennepin County is actively working to help keep unsheltered people as safe and healthy as possible during this public health emergency, and to help them transition to shelter options that are more stable. Lack of housing contributes to poor physical and mental health outcomes, and some people who are experiencing homelessness may be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to age or underlying medical conditions. In addition, sleeping outdoors often does not provide adequate access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, or connection to services and healthcare.
People experiencing homelessness and unsheltered homelessness are at risk for infection during community spread of COVID-19, and interim guidance for homeless shelters and for unsheltered homelessness from the CDC advises identifying additional temporary housing and shelter sites for overflow, isolation, quarantine, and protective housing of individuals experiencing homelessness during COVID-19. Existing shelters have been modified to reduce numbers served, operate 24/7 and alter the physical environment. They are now operating at optimum capacity for pandemic mitigation. While some beds went unused through the summer, we have more recently seen demand for men’s beds frequently exceeding maximum capacity. There is little potential to expand to meet any surge in demand, whether from those who are currently unsheltered as winter approaches or as the economic impacts of COVID continue to take their toll on people’s housing stability.
The Indoor Villages project will be a low barrier shelter for people experiencing homelessness. The model is unique in that it will be comprised of 100 tiny shelters located inside a warehouse building. Each resident will have their own individual living space, which will provide a safe alternative to unsheltered homelessness while providing non-congregate shelter that enables compliance with public health measures. The program is intended to create a safe, secure and service-rich environment where residents can connect with wrap-around services designed to connect people to permanent housing. This model is well designed for the COVID-19 pandemic, as it allows for more social distancing and provides personal space for residents. It may also better serve people who do not feel comfortable staying in a traditional shelter setting by giving them their own secure, separate spaces.
The shelter operations will be provided by Avivo. Their responsibilities include client intake, shelter staffing, coordination of daily meals, mail distribution and security.
Avivo has a proven track record operating mental and chemical health services, street outreach and housing programs for this population. Their work at the Hiawatha-Franklin encampment and subsequent Navigation Center in 2018/19 saw more than 150 people move into permanent housing and was critical in allowing the temporary Navigation Center to close in mid-2019. More recently, Avivo stood up a temporary hotel site following an encampment evacuation during the civil unrest taking in 71 individuals. They were able to exit and close this program within five months having connected 50 of the clients to stable housing.
The State of Minnesota and the City of Minneapolis are progressing funding requests for the project operations and the Indoor Villages project team is in discussions with a private owner to lease space located at 1251 N Washington Ave as the site for this project. The emergency shelter will follow CDC guidance to add sheltering capacity to prevent the spread of COVID-19. County CARES funding will be used only for capital expenses to prepare the site and construct the tiny shelters, and the County is not committing any funds for operating expenses. Hennepin County funding conditions will include:
Follows CDC guidance for homeless service providers
County approval of designs, specifications, service plans and budget
Satisfactory evidence that the project will comply with all applicable requirements with respect to CDC guidance for homeless service providers, zoning, building code, licensing/permitting, or other requirements necessary for the development.
Current pandemic models project increasingly lengthening recovery periods. A recent University of Minnesota report suggests COVID-19 could surge again this fall and the pandemic could last up to two years. Considering lengthening recovery projections, additional shelter solutions merit consideration.