Early intervention at Twin Cities homeless shelters 'saved lives'

Early in the pandemic, advocates for people experiencing homelessness were incredibly worried. Shelters were short on PPE and social distancing was nearly impossible. Advocates, however, say early intervention and public health partnerships likely prevented mass outbreaks.

"I absolutely believe it saved lives," said David Hewitt, the director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. "I remember saying it back then, and I certainly feel that way now: the decisions and the steps we took in the first days and weeks were going to dictate how this played out in the year ahead."

Pre-pandemic, Salvation Army’s Harbor Light shelter in downtown Minneapolis was the largest shelter in the state. Currently, its housing half the people it used to.

"We’ve got 270 people in hotel spaces, which means our census is half--it’s actually a little less than half," said Trish Thacker of Salvation Army. "We decided the best thing we could do was proactively move people into these protective hotel spaces."
Back in March, state and local officials teamed up with homeless shelters to transfer high-risk, older residents to hotels and reduce capacity at shelters across the state. In addition, Hennepin County allocated several million dollars to help shelters make safety upgrades.

"I feel like that combined, proactive response has just been—has allowed us—to come through this without the horrible, horrible stories that we’ve heard from other large population bases in the country," said Thacker.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, less than one percent of COVID-19 patients across the state were homeless at the time of infection.

COVID-19 exposure is believed to have occurred at homeless shelters in 863 cases statewide. In comparison, 7,270 cases have been linked to the correctional system, 25,808 linked to travel, and 34,349 linked to congregate care settings.
Hewitt says it’s one of the best outcomes they could’ve imagined going into this.
"We will come out of this with a much healthier shelter system that’s better equipped to serve the people who need to use it," said Hewitt.
At Harbor Light, they’ve averaged two cases a month throughout the pandemic and with only one outbreak during the November surge, they’re hoping they’ve seen the worst of it.

"That’s kind of the way it works, the bumps have to be worked out. But we worked them out," said Thacker.