Recently, Michael Goar, President and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, had the opportunity to submit testimony to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development for their hearing on “opportunities and challenges in addressing homelessness”. The testimony focused on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic shone a spotlight on the gaps of our state’s emergency shelter system, it also gave us a glimpse at the impact we could have on making homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring when investments are scaled to the scope of need, and when partners are aligned and coordinated in their response. Michael’s full testimony is included below:
Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis is a leading provider of housing, emergency shelter and direct services in the Twin Cities metro region. Each year, we serve more than 20,000 men, women, children and families regardless of faith, background or circumstance. We provide nearly 475,000 nights of housing and emergency shelter and 1.1 million meals annually as part of our mission to serve those most in need. In doing so, we help comprise our state’s safety net, creating a foundation for individuals to thrive.
The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the gaps and inadequacies of our state’s emergency shelter system, but it also gave us a glimpse at the impact we could have on making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring when investments are scaled to the true scope of need and when partners are aligned and coordinated in their response. As you meet to discuss opportunities and challenges in addressing homelessness, I would like to take this opportunity to share more about Catholic Charities’ pandemic experience, the current status of our programs and the impact of the pandemic on the people we serve.
The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Crisis On Top Of A Crisis
COVID-19 occurred during a time of already increasing demand for our services, due to the worsening housing and homelessness crisis and insufficient public investments. As they navigated the fear and uncertainty that came in the early days of the pandemic, our staff worked tirelessly with local and state partners to decrease the census at our shelters—which had been serving more individuals each night than they had ever been intended for—in order to support physical distancing, minimize the spread of the virus among our vulnerable population and protect guests who were at highest risk of health complications. We struggled to access basic personal protective equipment, especially hand sanitizer. Frontline staff were suddenly required to take temperatures, performed an average of 1,300 health screenings each week, supported county public health partners during mass testing and vaccination events, and implemented quarantine and isolation procedures for guests and residents. These actions reaffirmed their critical role as first responders within the healthcare system. Like hospital workers, our frontline staff put their lives at risk every day.
Our agency established a COVID-19 response team, introduced hazard pay to recognize the risks being assumed by our frontline staff, provided paid time off for staff who became infected, and set up an internal labor pool to ensure our sites were always open for those in need. Thanks to the diligent work of staff across our agency, we never closed our doors, and during the height of the pandemic only 1% of our homeless guests tested positive for COVID while in our care.
Through strong partnerships and with life-saving emergency aid from state and federal relief packages, we were successful in minimizing the spread of the virus among the most vulnerable in our community—but the pandemic took a toll on our clients and staff, nevertheless.
Following CDC and state health department protocols, our shelter guests and housing residents—who are already more likely to experience social isolation—were unable to host guests on site. Congregate dining in our cafeterias was limited, and meals had to be delivered to individual apartments. Clients struggled to access health care and critical support services due to government staff and other agencies working from home and not being onsite to meet with individuals, and mental health challenges increased.
Today, the people we serve continue to experience increasingly difficult mental, behavioral and chemical health needs. Their services continue to be disrupted as providers slowly return to the office and because telehealth is seldom an effective or available alternative for them. Simply put, people are not getting the help and services they need to move beyond surviving to thriving, and as emergency aid has dried up, we do not have funding to staff the trained workers needed to better support them.
Our frontline staff are exhausted. The pandemic added a crisis on top of a crisis, and the stress and strain this has put on the shelter and housing workforce has led to record-high turnover. Our ability to effectively and compassionately serve those experiencing homelessness—including seniors and individuals with increasingly challenging cases of mental illness and chronic health conditions—has been significantly compromised at a time when evictions are rising, temporary shelter locations are closing due to funding cliffs, and our emergency services are overrun.
However, we can find hope in some of the lessons learned from the last two years:
Lessons Learned In Addressing Homelessness
• When government partners with community nonprofits and removes red tape, it creates space for proactive and creative solutions, and we can accomplish incredible things.
• There must be a diversity of services—and flexibility in funding—to better meet the wide diversity of needs presented by individuals experiencing homelessness.
• Our homelessness response system is extremely underfunded, but current funding mechanisms (like the Emergency Services Grant) do work well when properly funded to meet the true scale of need.
• People experiencing homelessness who were moved to hotels, where they had their own room with a door and a key, stabilized more quickly and were successful in finding permanent housing.
• When staff-to-client ratios are reduced and program hours are extended, we see stronger relationships and better outcomes. Our staff and the trauma-informed services they provide are our greatest asset, and we must invest in them.
• Federal funding is necessary. State and local governments do not have enough resources to fund the homelessness response on their own.
• Housing ends homelessness, but until more deeply affordable and accessible housing can be built, we must continue the temporary shelter programs that have proven so successful.
We are grateful for the support and collaboration of our local, state and federal partners, especially during these past two years. Despite current challenges, Catholic Charities remains committed to serving and advocating for those most in need.
As the pandemic response shifts toward recovery, we ask for your help to ensure we move forward and not backward by maintaining significant federal investments to address ongoing homelessness and housing challenges. Together, we can disrupt trends in homelessness and open the door to a stable home for thousands more in need.