WINONA — Terry Hicks has an apartment now, but he's worried he might lose it soon.
Money is tight. He lives on about $800 a month, and a big chunk of that goes to pay for his car, auto insurance, and some debts he's paying off. That leaves him with about half his income to pay for the rent on the transitional housing – a subsidized place that is meant to help move people like Terry from shelters to sustainable housing – where he has a small room and shares kitchen and living space with another man.
Right now, he considers himself lucky.
And, in some ways, he's right.
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Steve Sarvi, Winona's city manager, said when the first round of CARES Act funding came to the counties, Winona County did a lot of work in the city of Winona to help fund projects for the homeless.
"The pandemic forced us to really think through that population and what, as a community, we can offer," Sarvi said. "It didn’t do any good to have people with COVID living on the streets."
CARES Act funding was used to pay for hotel rooms, especially when overnight warming shelters were closed due to the fear of spreading COVID-19. Now, he said, there's a focus on finding more stabilized housing, funding warming centers not just for overnight stays, but a place where those without a home can spend their daytime hours out of the elements with access to a meal.
Hicks goes nearly every day in Winona to the Winona Community Day Center run by Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota.
Adam Neil, the day center coordinator, said he and his staff of six do intakes with every new individual who comes into the center. As the weather has warmed up and COVID restrictions become fewer, new faces are appearing more and more frequently.
"Over the last month or so, we're seeing people we've never seen before," Neil said. "Over the winter, it was more regulars."
The WCDC is open to anyone, whether they have a place to live or not, but it serves as a safe environment for homeless individuals who need a place to spend the day. Every day includes a hot meal donated by Steak Shop Catering, Neil said. There's water and snacks that can be taken to go, and, best of all, it's a safe place to relax during the day when overnight shelters are closed or to find friends away from often-lonely transitional housing units.
It is one of several resources for the homeless offered by the Winona Community HUB, a part of Live Well Winona, which coordinates resources for community members in need, including the homeless.
Hicks, meanwhile, comes because he knows the people at WCDC care. He experienced that care when he was homeless about a month ago.
Last winter, he moved to Winona to live with one of his sons, but after several months, felt the need for some space. He lived in his car for a couple of months, and eventually someone told him about WCDC, so he went for the food, the companionship and the helping hand.
"The staff, the people who are here, they're making a difference," Hicks said. "They're saving lives."
COVID changed the homeless landscape in SE MN, for better and for worse
In the first couple of months of 2020, the situation for homeless individuals in Southeast Minnesota looked like it was, slowly, getting better.
A new warming center in Olmsted County would provide a safe place for people in Rochester outside the skyways. In Winona, work was being done at Wesley United Methodist Church to provide a second option for overnight stays, along with Community Bible Church, which offered 20 beds for homeless individuals in need. In Red Wing, a group had organized its first winter of overnight sheltering, going from church to church on a weekly rotating basis.
Then the word "pandemic" became part of the everyday vocabulary, and programs and facilities for helping the homeless took a hit.
They also, in some instances, got a boost.
Worst of times
When Minnesota declared a peacetime emergency in March 2020, shelters for those without homes were among the many public places to shut down.
"We were closed for two to three months and didn't reopen until late June (2020)," said Ryan Cardarella, president of Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Rochester. "We've been open ever since, but we're still operating at a limited capacity."
Instead of a maximum of 23 guests a night, Dorothy Day House is limited to half capacity – 14 guests a night – following the Centers for Disease Control guidelines which also require sanitizing surfaces more thoroughly, and the wearing of masks in all common areas.
The other big hit came in lost volunteers.
"Most of our volunteers returned," Cardarella aid. "Our volunteers skew toward retired, and they were concerned until people were able to get vaccinated."
Liz Magill, executive director of Open Harbors in Red Wing, said losing volunteers was a part of that program's problem as well. The organization's shelter had rotated from church to church during the winter of 2019-2020, but the churches were closed because of the pandemic.
Best of times
Fortunately, the organization was able to rent a house through this last winter. That, Magill said, was thanks to grants available due to COVID-19 funding.
"We went from a budget of $12,000 to $101,000 the second year," she said. "We needed a whole lot of grants."
The organization, which opens its shelter from November through March, needed to get a conditional use permit from the city in order to operate. They went from volunteers to paid staff handling the overnight duties.
"There was a ton of resources in money and support from the state and the county," Magill said, adding that while the landscape for homeless shelters was constantly changing, organizations – everything from state and county government to housing agencies such as Three Rivers Community Action Programs and SEMMCHRA, and nonprofits such as Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota -- all worked together.
All that cooperation, funding and hard work led to Open Harbors being able to offer more help. In the winter of 2019-2020, the organization had 31 guests utilize 561 nights of care. The next year, 52 people utilized about 900 nights of care, Magill said. The second year also included food each night, programs for cash assistance, and help for clients with tasks ranging from getting haircuts to finding jobs.
“We had more time to do that since we were a full-time shelter,” she said.
Now that the organization has experience being more full-service for the needs of homeless individuals, Magill said she wants to keep that going. For next winter, the organization will need about $60,000 if it goes back to rotating between churches for shelter space. The majority of that money will go to staff.
A different model
While Open Harbors is glad for the boost in funding that accompanied COVID relief efforts, Cardarella said Dorothy Day House in Rochester has been fortunate enough to rely on the financial support of the community.
"We didn’t apply for federal and state grants," he said. "The community has been very generous to us through the pandemic as well."
It makes Dorothy Day House a place well-known among homeless individuals.
Macy Misgen came from Faribault, Minn., recently to spend a night, hoping to spend time with her mother, who lives in Rochester.
"I've stayed here a couple of times," she said. "It's real nice. Peaceful."
At one point, she stayed at the Civic Center when it was a temporary shelter, but she contracted COVID-19 and went to live with her boyfriend in Owatonna from December through April. But when the warmer weather arrived, she began traveling again.
And she's hopeful she can get a place of her own where she can stay, eventually. In the interim, she'll stay at Dorothy Day House for a short time while she plans her next move.
Lewis Brewster also was spending a night at Dorothy Day House. He'd spent a night at the shelter near the Government Center, he said, but he's trying to stay sober, and Dorothy Day is a better atmosphere for that.
He was hoping to only stay through the weekend until he could start a new job and get back into a place to live.
"It's a survival thing," he said. "I'm not going to sleep on the streets or in my car," he said.
Concerns going forward
While some resources for those without permanent homes survived intact through COVID-19 – Dorothy Day House – and others saw changes and even new programs – the Winona Community Day Center or Open Harbors in Red Wing – others were dealt setbacks.
In Winona, Wesley United Methodist's shelter never got off the ground, and the planned development of Grace Place, a homeless facility that would specialize in families needing transitional housing, was put on the back burner.
But perhaps the biggest looming concern is when the moratorium on evictions is lifted, and landlords start removing tenants who have not paid their rent.
"We're worried there will be a big spike when the eviction moratorium ends," said the WCDC's Neil.
That, more than simply being homeless, can have a long-term effect, said Open Harbor's Magill. In addition to putting people on the streets, getting an eviction on your rental record can prevent someone from qualifying for housing subsidies for five or seven years, depending on the program.
"I think people don’t realize the long-term effects of getting an eviction on their rental record," Magill said. "And with an apartment going for $1,300 to $1,800 a month, a lot of people need help getting into those units."