BY ED FELIEN
Well, since my baby left me
Well, I found a new place to dwell
Well, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel
There are lots of reasons for homelessness. More than half of all working adults in America are a paycheck away from borrowing money from savings or from someone else or face living on the street. We know that people who are homeless are the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, and we know that taking care of them means we are taking care of everybody, because an infection unchecked in that community will spread to the rest of us.
Hennepin County is currently spending $2.5 million a month to rent hotel rooms for homeless people—especially for those already infected with COVID-19. At their May 13 meeting, County Administrator David Hough told the board that the county could save money by buying the hotels instead of leasing. Hough also noted the coronavirus has greatly hurt the hotel industry, making some owners eager to sell: “This isn’t ending anytime soon.”
Board Chair Marion Greene said, “I like the idea that we’ll have an asset at the end of it … that feels more long-lasting than paying for hotel rooms night-by-night.”
Commissioner Angela Conley, whose district includes the encampments along Hiawatha Avenue, said, “As we’re seeing in congregate care settings, one instance of a positive test could just run rampant throughout
the encampment. The need for alternative spaces and to get people out of those places that are unfit for habitation is a number one priority.”
At their May 20 meeting, the board authorized Hough to negotiate the purchase of “several hundred residential/hospitality units
to support alternative living spaces for homeless adults and county-dependent individuals impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The vote was 6 to 1. Even Jeff Johnson, two-time Republican candidate for governor, voted in favor of public ownership of a hotel. Only Jan Callison, representing Minnetonka, voted against it.
Johnson supported the measure with the hope that the purchase would be temporary—that the county would find some shelter organization to take over ownership and operations in 2021 or 2022.
The four DFLers on the seven-person board were more open to the idea of public ownership of the hotel long- term to help provide affordable housing for Hennepin County. Angela Conley said, “I think that this would be a huge asset for us. Doing something now that can carry over into that post-Covid world really will change the landscape of how supportive housing could look.”
Mike Opat said, “If done correctly, it will add another tool to our toolbox in terms of helping folks on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.”