Few in Duluth needed the sight of a homeless encampment being dismantled in the tree-covered hillside at Point of Rocks last month to realize homelessness here is as serious as elsewhere.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” Joel Kilgour, an advocate of Loaves and Fishes, said in the News Tribune just a couple weeks later. The charity has been turning away some in need of a place to sleep, which not long ago was unheard of. In July, St. Louis County reported that its annual survey found an 18% one-year rise in homelessness.
So when Duluth received $1.3 million in federal CARES Act funds to address financial and community emergencies stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, was it any surprise our Duluth City Council seized on the money as an opportunity to address homelessness? Councilors voted unanimously last week to use $400,000 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allocation to create a warming center and hygiene facility, possibly at the Lincoln Park Community Center, 2014 W. Third St.
As supportive as Duluthians may be of the decision, they also may be left to wonder: Is addressing an ongoing, long-time need, even one as critical as homelessness, really an appropriate use of emergency funds meant to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19? Was any evidence presented ahead of the vote to indicate that the pandemic is ravaging, or even impacting, Duluth’s homeless population?
Councilor Roz Randorf, who introduced the resolution with Councilor Renee Van Nett, said in response to questions from the News Tribune Opinion page: “Especially in a pandemic, the ability to get clean, wash your hands, wash your clothes, and go somewhere where you can clean is really important. And it always has been, but now more than ever.”
In seeming support of the council’s move, the Homeless Research Institute and others have predicted that COVID-19 will drive up homelessness as a result of job losses. Also, in winter, larger shelters and drop-in facilities will be needed to accommodate distancing requirements. The council’s vote may help head off an outbreak among Duluth’s homeless.
Duluth is closely adhering to rules governing how CARES Act funds are spent, ensuring their appropriate use, Randorf vowed. Justifications are required to be detailed in formal funding applications, she said.
“We have a lot of boxes to check in making sure we’re compliant with (how we use) this money,” said Randorf. “It has to be (to address) COVID.”
“Folks who are on the ground literally, they are affected more adversely than a lot of other people,” Van Nett said in a separate phone interview with the Opinion page. “I believe (CARES Act funding) is there to help the communities and help people.”
Duluth’s $1.3 million is likely also to be spent to improve access to high-speed internet, Randorf said. That necessity is growing with more residents working from home and more students attending school from home because of shutdowns caused by the pandemic.
Beyond the homeless, a population in clear need of council consideration for COVID-19 relief funds is our seniors. Outbreaks already have been reported in Duluth at the Benedictine Living Community, Saint Ann’s, and elsewhere. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, and older adults are at the highest risk. Even more troubling, eight out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the U.S. have been among adults 65 and older.
New COVID-19 cases in nursing homes have reached record numbers in the U.S., the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) announced Tuesday. More concerning to Minnesotans and Wisconsinites, during the first week of November, nearly half of all new COVID-19 cases in nursing homes were in Midwestern states.
“Our worst fears have come true as COVID runs rampant among the general population, and long-term care facilities are powerless to fully prevent it from entering due to its asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread,” Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of AHCA/NCAL, said as part of the announcement. “Our health care heroes are doing everything they can to prevent it from spreading further, but this level of COVID nationwide puts serious strain on our workforce, supplies, and testing capacity. If everybody would wear a mask and social distance to reduce the level of COVID in the community, we know we would dramatically reduce these rates in long-term care facilities.”
Funds for dealing with the coronavirus are limited, of course. Priorities must be made. Duluth city councilors last week made homelessness a priority, which it long has been, here as elsewhere.
But it’s hard to see how our seniors — the most vulnerable among us, especially those in nursing homes and other care facilities where the virus can and has spread rapidly — aren’t an even greater priority right now.