RED LAKE -- While the pandemic has undoubtedly caused a myriad of issues, according to Jordan May, the director of the Red Lake Homeless Shelter, the COVID-19 situation has acted as a catalyst -- bringing to light long-ignored issues in the area and banding support-providing organizations together.

May, who has had experience with homelessness firsthand, spoke Tuesday morning during a virtual event kicking off “2021 Homeless Day on the Hill,” three days of advocacy on behalf of unhoused individuals around the state.

During the event, organizers met with lawmakers to discuss their needs to expand emergency shelter beds to ensure no one has to sleep outside, invest in programs that cultivate long-term stability, and guarantee everyone in Minnesota has a permanent place to call home. Eight speakers addressed positive community outcomes in response to COVID-19, partnerships in communities across the state and the need for ongoing investments in programs like the Emergency Services Program, Housing Support Program and Shelter Capital.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan was scheduled to attend the call, but needed to cancel last minute, organizers said.

May shared his experiences as a tribal member and rural Minnesota provider on a call made up primarily of metro-area residents. The Red Lake Homeless Shelter provides emergency shelter to families and single adults over the age of 18 providing beds, meals, showers and transit transportation along with case management services.

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May said at any given time, 800 to 1,000 people in Red Lake meet some definition of homeless -- either living on the streets, with a temporary shelter or crashing with family members or friends.

“There is a big lack of housing stock, and we typically have anywhere from 800 to 1,000 people that are doubled up or homeless and meet the literal definition of (homelessness). It’s kind of a big issue,” May said, adding that COVID-19 has brought these issues to the forefront. Throughout his time to speak, May reiterated the importance of a holistic approach to assistance, as often, housing is not the only issue being faced by those experiencing homelessness.

“COVID-19 has brought extra stress for mental health issues, chemical dependency issues, other certain barriers that people are going through. It helped shine a light on the homelessness issues that are in our area. People became more compassionate to the needs of everybody that is going through this pandemic, especially pertaining to homelessness,” he said.

Besides the organizers and speakers, around 163 attendees listened in on the call live.

During a question and answer session, May addressed additional concerns unhoused people are facing due to the pandemic, like public places being closed and students trying to distance learn without internet connection or devices.

“(Distance learning) was one thing that was really hard on our families, especially families that are homeless,” May said.

May said the pandemic has helped services for people experiencing homelessness in Red Lake become more well-rounded, as many support organizations in Red Lake banded together during this time.

“We’ve made so many different connections with community resources that I didn’t even know were in our area,” May said. “It helped spark creativity, different programs so we can communicate, collaborate and coordinate a lot of different services.”

“(The pandemic) really helped get our tribal council leaders involved,” he continued. “We’ve been able to transition people from homelessness to the hotel to their own housing. I believe so far we’ve served around 18 that now have their own permanent housing on the Rez, that if we didn’t have any of this COVID funding, none of the resources would have been available for the people in our area.”

May said soon the services the Red Lake Shelter provides will be expanding.

“Hopefully next week or the week after I’m going to be opening up a brand new single adult shelter with 12 beds. The nice thing about that is it has different wrap-around services right next to the shelter,” he said. “We’re going to be providing a lot of different group talking circles and different things, everything is going to be culturally specific. It’s really helping to bring a holistic approach to homelessness issues that people are having.”

After May spoke, Rhonda Otteson, the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, praised him for his work over the years.

“Your work continues to inspire all of us,” she said. “I think highlighting that low barrier and culturally specific programming that you’ve been able to create and sustain over the pandemic is really important.”

She mentioned more than 20,000 people were homeless in the state prior to the pandemic.

“During this pandemic, organizations across the state have shown incredible tenacity to provide life-saving services and continue to innovate and find creative ways to bring people inside,” she said. “I call on our legislative leaders to make investments in the programs and shelter infrastructure needed to create housing stability for every Minnesotan.”