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Hotel stays help dozens experiencing homelessness find more permanent homes

By Faye Williams

Not too long ago, Marvin Oglesby spent his days searching for life’s essentials, and worrying.

“Worried if I have food, worried about other people living on the street, worried if I will make it to the next day or through the night,” he said.

Oglesby lacked a stable place to live for three years. But last month, he moved into a duplex of his own. He credits this transition to having his own private room in a hotel.

“It gave me a foundation to stand on that and look for something more,” said Oglesby. “From the shelter to the hotel, that was the difference.”

In March, Hennepin County moved people, especially those most vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19, from congregate shelters into private rooms in five hotels. The plan was to reduce crowding and protect people most at risk.

There was another benefit.

According to officials working to end homelessness in Hennepin County, 56 people have moved into permanent housing since the start of the hotel efforts.

Housing can help people experiencing homelessness, especially those struggling with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, achieve stability, which is key to their well-being.

Michael Huffman, director of outreach and shelter at St. Stephen’s Human Services in Minneapolis, said hotels help people over shelters in other ways.

“They have 24-hour access to that space so that means that people who maybe were asked to leave during the day under normal circumstances are now able to pick up a third-shift job and work overnight,” Huffman said.

Oglesby said he felt a sense of agency at the hotel. “Staying at the hotel gave me independence so to speak, to see how I would live by myself.”

The “high-risk” hotels in Hennepin County each day housed 540 seniors and people especially vulnerable to COVID-19 who might otherwise depend on shelters or sleep outside.

There also are “isolation” hotels for people who may have the coronavirus or have tested positive. In total, there have been more than 1,400 occupants in what the county calls “protective and isolation” housing since March, according to data released earlier this month.

The hotels have also made it easier for social workers to connect with their clients.

Mohamed Sheikh was Oglesby’s social worker. He said social workers are able to provide consistent care because they know exactly where their clients are.

“The hotel presented an opportunity because they were able to stabilize their mental health, meet their physical health needs, and meet their social needs,” Sheikh said.

This week the Hennepin County Board approved spending $13.3 million in federal CARES Act funds to buy a hotel to provide more than 100 rooms for those at high risk of serious side effects from COVID-19. The aim is to have it open by the end of the year, and continue to offer support services. The board already had designated $3.6 million to purchase other facilities with around 160 units to house people with underlying health conditions.

“I’m hopeful that we’re gonna follow through our ideal goal of housing everyone in the hotel,” said Sheikh. “Our ideal goal is nobody should go back to the shelter and deal with the harsh condition of the winter.”

Huffman says a sustainable version of the current hotel operations could be a significant factor in creating long-term change.

“But the affordable housing investment can’t come at the expense of not investing in shelter,” said Huffman.

Governments and nonprofits in Hennepin County expect to invest more than $15 million to add four new emergency shelters by the end of the year. The county will spend almost $6 million to add air flow systems and partitions to shelters to try to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Secure in his new home, Oglesby is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology and recording a podcast to share his life experiences.

Oglesby says he still feels overwhelmed, but that he’s gained a sense of purpose, a “zeal to want to have something better.”

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