ST. PAUL — Minnesota homeless shelters and advocacy groups have asked to tap into a $200 million emergency fund for health care providers established last week by the state Legislature in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Saying they were overburdened and underfunded even before the virus broke out here, the groups are requesting access to the fund so they can better prepare for any influx of shelter seekers. The outbreak threatens to funnel more of the state's homeless indoors at one time than is normal, they say, and displace those who lost their jobs as a result of the containment-driven shutdown of businesses across Minnesota.

"We need more support, we need more resources and we urgently need them now," Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis President Tim Marx said Thursday, March 26.

Speaking on a press call Thursday, Marx and other homelessness group representatives said they are already beginning to feel squeezed by the accelerating pandemic. Marx said that Catholic Charities, which operates several emergency shelters and housing facilities in the Twin Cities metro area, is spending an additional $250,000 a week to meet new demands for food and other supplies.

Since last week, the Simpsons Housing Services' overnight shelter in Minneapolis has stayed open for 24 hours a day. The group estimates that will add around $11,000 a week to the shelter's operating expenses.

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The Minnesota Legislature late Thursday passed Gov. Tim Walz's proposal for a separate emergency funding bill, which would make about $15 million in new grants available to shelters that seek to add bed space or acquire motel and hotel vouchers. That may be critical given the infectious nature of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, and the close quarters that shelters sometimes maintain.

Contributing to the risk of transmission, too, is travel between shelters.

"If there’s an infection in shelters, it’s going to go like wildfire," said Lee Stuart, executive director of Duluth-based shelter operator CHUM.

An additional $11.3 million of the bill passed Thursday is earmarked for shelter sanitary supplies and new staff hires. But several homeless groups argue that they should have access to the $200 million health care fund as well.

Two groups, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and Homes For All, have estimated that $50 million in emergency assistance will be needed to help shelters navigate the pandemic. And the needs that individual shelters face can themselves be formidable.

Catholic Charities alone has applied for $2.5 million in aid from the health are fund, according to Marx. Opening and running a new shelter in St. Louis County, Stuart said, would cost tens of thousands of dollars a month.

Making homeless shelters and service providers eligible for the fund makes sense, Marx said, because they are de facto "field hospitals for the poor." He said they are some of the first places that homeless people turn to when they feel sick or are in pain.

Many chronically homeless individuals suffer from underlying health conditions as well, the groups said, which puts them at a higher risk of death due to COVID-19.

The more than 10,000 people in Minnesota who are already homeless aren't the only ones for whom the groups said they fear.

Households living paycheck to paycheck, for example, may come to rely on shelters if they lose their source of income. That reality has likely already dawned on the more than 150,000 Minnesotans who have applied for state unemployment insurance since March 16, when bars, restaurants and other businesses were ordered to close.

The Minnesota Interagency Council has not estimated how many people the pandemic could leave homeless, according to Assistant Commissioner Cathy ten Broeke. But with more and more people facing job loss, she said, "we are of course very concerned."

For those on the front lines of the fight against homelessness, the pandemic underscores what they say is a longstanding need for additional funding. It also puts into focus the thin line between sustenance and poverty.

"These folks are just one crisis away from losing housing," said Simpson Housing Executive Director Steve Horsfield, and “the crisis is here.”

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