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A growing gap: Communities grapple with swelling homeless population

Kerry Kaufmann sat with his elbows sprawled across a circular table at Holiday Inn Express in Shakopee with less glimmer behind his glasses than there was a year ago, before the pandemic pushed him further into the pit of homelessness.

Last year, Kaufmann was living out of his Ford Explorer and rationing heat from the air vents when he needed to thaw his fingers. After he was evicted from a Shakopee apartment, he bought the truck for around $2,000 and perched an air mattress and MyPillow in the back seat along with a heaping pile of laundry, a couple bags of food and a blanket.

He had a job through a temp agency and was hopeful that his name would soon crawl its way up the waiting list to get permanent housing.

This year, in May, Kaufmann checked into the Holiday Inn as part of a shelter program funded by the Community Action Partnership of Scott, Carver & Dakota Counties. He’s been living in a small hotel room with one window and a microwave ever since, and due to recent health issues and a recent COPD diagnosis, he’s been out of his $14 per hour temp job.

Suzie Misel, housing and social services manager with CAP and one of the original members of the 10-year working group, has, in the last two years, told the newspaper homelessness has gotten worse — and the pandemic isn’t helping.

Kaufmann is allotted $200 in food stamps each month. With it he buys microwavable White Castle meals from the freezer section and tortillas with shredded cheese and tomato sauce that he microwaves and calls pizza.

Growing numbers

In 2010, Carver and Scott counties began a 10-year plan to end homelessness: By the year 2020, give all people in need access to safe, decent and affordable housing and the resources to sustain it.

In 2009, the group estimated 31 adults and 32 children were homeless on any given day in the counties. To make that number zero, the group proposed several funding and education goals as well as building 300 low-cost housing units. A group of representatives from local nonprofits, churches, local governments and agencies gave their support.

Last month, there were 55 different calls reporting people experiencing homelessness in Scott, Carver and Dakota Counties. Since September, there have been about 140 calls.

“So that shows that in one month, it’s growing,” Misel said.

In Scott County, there are 51 households in the priority pool for homeless-specific housing resources. In Carver County, there are 38 households on that list, and in Dakota County, there are 130 households on that list.

The tri-county waiting list just to get into a shelter room in a hotel is 32 people deep.

It’s too soon to quantify the effects of the pandemic on homelessness in the area, Misel said. Already, there are more people experiencing homelessness than there were last year; but there is also more funding available to temporarily place people like Kaufmann in hotel rooms.

An end to the pandemic is in sight, which also means the end of the Gov. Tim Walz’s moratorium on evictions is hovering. And the CAP Agency worries many residents who haven’t been paying rent the past six months won’t be able to catch up.

Within the CAP agency’s region, Misel said they've received 1,300 calls for housing-related assistance in Scott and Carver counties since Jan. 1 and of those, callers, 475 were homeless. But the agency fears many more residents may be pushing off applying for assistance because of the eviction moratorium.

“We feel like people just haven’t felt the pressure when they owe $7,000 come January,” Misel said. “They think they can just worry about something else right now. So only the proactive people are benefiting.”

The governor’s peacetime emergency declaration, which encompasses the eviction moratorium, is currently scheduled to expire on Jan. 13, but it could be extended.

And that’s the dark shadow that looms over people like Kaufmann and agencies like CAP: not knowing when the rug will be pulled out from them; when funding will diminish, an end to eviction moratoriums will pile insurmountable rent bills on kitchen tables and Kaufmann will no longer have a warm room to sleep in.

An epidemic

Misel said domestic violence, a loss of income due to COVID-19 and unaffordable housing in the area are partly to blame for why the homeless population seems to be growing despite more shelter options available.

“The homeless population spends a lot of time couch-hopping,” Misel said. “But due to COVID, they’re not able to move around like that, so they really are sleeping outside or in their cars.”

On top of that, Erik Gentry, Director of Housing and Emergency Services for the CAP Agency, said despite the moratorium on evictions there are still landlords demanding money and threatening evictions.

“(Tenants) are not going to court or actually getting evicted,” Gentry said, “but landlords are threatening it, and it’s pushing people out.”

To curb that migration, the CAP Agency recently started a trickle-down strategy by doling out rent assistance to landlords instead of tenants. The idea is that the landlords are taking the brunt of the moratorium on evictions when tenants don’t pay their rent, and thus pressuring their tenants with evictions when the checks don’t come in.

The assistance helps about 60 landlords and 150 apartment buildings in the tri-county area.

Temporary shelter

Because Scott and Carver counties don’t have brick-and-mortar homeless shelters, the two counties have relied on rooms at local hotels and motels to provide a warm place for those experiencing homelessness.

According to Gentry, the Minnesota Office of Economic Opportunity recently provided funding which allows a handful of rooms to be reserved at hotels in the tri-county area for those needing immediate shelter.

For once, COVID has proven helpful in booking those rooms, since hotels in the area need the business and are offering the rooms at a far lower price.

“Because of COVID their booking numbers plummeted, where in the years past we were begging to get hotel rooms and they were charging us a lot more,” Gentry said.

Last year, there were 16 hotel rooms available for those experiencing homelessness. This year, there are 44.

Not all of those rooms are funded by the CAP Agency. The Salvation Army, Carver County, Families Moving Forward and Launch Ministry also run motel programs in which they have booked rooms scattered throughout the area.

Even with the additional 28 hotel rooms this year, there are still just as many people on a list waiting to get into shelter as there were last year.

“We keep a shelter list, and we’re able to look at the list whenever anyone has an opening,” Misel said. The agencies involved identify high-risk individuals and those who have been waiting the longest to determine who will get shelter on any given day.

The ability to have 15 rooms blocked off at the Holiday Inn Express in Shakopee has been somewhat of a saving grace for both the hotel and those receiving the shelter, Jeff Andrews, general manager at Holiday Inn Express in Shakopee, said.

“When COVID hit, we were down to five, 10 rooms (booked) per night,” Andrews said. “So we were struggling to figure out what we would do for our business.”

Then the Salvation Army and the CAP Agency partnered with Andrews to reserve a total of 15 rooms for those in the area experiencing homelessness at the Shakopee hotel.

With the hotel hovering around 50% capacity or less — and with January bookings that look even bleaker — Andrews said the rooms definitely give him and his team a bit of wiggle room while being able to help the community’s most vulnerable population; a win-win.

But there’s still a long way to go for Gentry, Misel and CAP Agency partners set out to tackle homelessness in the area. There’s still an excel spreadsheet with a list too long to look at without scrolling, with notes next to names: a van parked in Waconia; a 23-year-old woman sleeping in a tent; a car parked outside Walmart.

COVID-19 vaccines were offered during a vaccination event held Saturday, Dec. 19 at St. Joseph’s hospital campus.