BEMIDJI -- Last month the coronavirus forced the Wolfe, an overnight shelter for Bemidji's homeless population, to close its doors.
However, thanks to a strong safety net held up by multiple entities, a new shelter is now successfully operating during this time.
According to Reed Olson, executive director for the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless, the shift in operations began during a special board meeting on March 23. During the session, the coalition chose to close the Wolfe as it provides a single space where staff and guests couldn't properly practice social distancing.
"Given that our population is a vulnerable one, with many having compromised immune systems, a lot of people would not do well," Olson said.
With their main shelter closed, the coalition found another facility in cooperation with Beltrami County. An agreement was formed with the owner of the Super 8 to utilize a detached, 30-room building on the hotel's property in Bemidji and since March 27, it's been a place for the homeless population to stay and practice social distancing.
At the time of the Wolfe's closing, Olson said the coalition was serving about 20 people per night.
"The population we serve, namely single adults that are experiencing substance use disorder and often have a mental illness, that's probably at about 45 people," Olson said. "When you get into families that have unstable housing, or are inadequately housed, you're talking many, many more people."
A positive case
Since the new site was set up, there's been one person who's tested positive for COVID-19 that has stayed at the shelter.
"On March 29, someone who'd been positively diagnosed with COVID came to us in a controlled setting," Olson said. "They had been in contact with their doctor, the department of health and the county. So, we coordinated their arrival and put them in a room in a wing that no one else had access to."
According to Olson, the individual, who had been diagnosed a few days earlier, self-isolated there and have since completed the required period. Olson said once they were free of the virus, they left the shelter.
While no other guest has tested positive, Olson said the coalition has taken precautions and were required to have a shelter-in-place call recently. On April 1, Olson said a gentleman came to the facility with a fever, resulting in a full response plan.
"We notified County Public Health that night, and on Thursday, he got a test which was sent to a lab. We received the results on Monday and it was negative," Olson said. "During that time before the results came back, though, we had people sheltering in place. Through a lot of great kindness in the community, including some of the downtown restaurants and the Community Table program, we were able to get food for three meals every day."
All hands on deck
On a daily basis, the cost of using the current building is $50 per room and the cost is shared between the coalition and the county, with the latter covering a larger amount.
"We are both seeking grants to cover those costs," Olson said. "The Legislature has passed a large spending bill that included $26 million for emergency service programs like the Wolfe. That's the fund we're tapping into to try and fund this. For this month, all of the costs are above and beyond what we normally budget for."
Along with seeking grants and state funding, Olson said the coalition has also relied heavily on the help of the community. In speaking with the Pioneer, Olson thanked the work of the People's Church, the Village of Hope, local law enforcement agencies and the county government.
"I think this is a true 'black swan' event, where we just could not have anticipated what it would mean and what it would look like," Olson said. "We're learning a lot about maybe what we'd do in the future.
He said that in his opinion, Minnesota generally and Beltrami County specifically have been incredibly responsive.
"The virus shows that we are all one community," Olson continued. "It doesn't care what your address is, it doesn't care what your annual income is. Housed and unhoused, we're all threatened by this. When you have a population that is a subgroup like those we serve, who have weakened immune systems, it's so important we take care of these guys and gals and that we can slow down the transmission among this population."