St. Stephen’s Street Outreach team has always played a role in local public health. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken that role to new heights. In the spring, St. Stephen’s Street Outreach team supported a public health response by mapping and screening small clusters of tents. Before the growth of the more concentrated and visible encampments of this spring and summer, the team’s early efforts focused on providing information to dispersed camps, and ensuring that unsheltered folks had access to food as meal sites closed or evolved. The team, which normally operates five days per week, moved to seven-day staffing to meet community needs.
St. Stephen’s quickly saw the need to expand shelter options, particularly for the most medically vulnerable individuals and partners. When our shelters partnered with Our Saviour’s Housing to move all three of our collective shelters to a hotel location in early May, we gained capacity to host additional shelter beds. Our Street Outreach team worked to identify more than 100 individuals who met the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s recommendations for protective shelter. Our shelters, like most others in Hennepin County, are normally filled through Adult Shelter Connect. To create a new pipeline into shelter for unsheltered folks, our shelter and Street Outreach teams needed to create new systems for identifying open beds, and for communicating with clients and each other. Shelter staff notify our Outreach team of every open room. The Outreach team matches that room to a client, ensures that the client has the information and resources to get to the hotel, and then informs our shelter staff of who to expect.
The biggest thing that has changed about the work since before the pandemic, says Outreach Worker Francesco, has to do with social distancing guidelines. They are “unable to interact with clients in the same ways we traditionally have in the past, which is critical to relationship building.” Outreach Worker Miranda adds that “so many of our clients are consistently being displaced. That makes it more difficult to find people. When we do, they are displaced again.” Nevertheless, our Street Outreach team is up to the challenge. Because of the strong collaboration between our teams, more than 70 unsheltered people have had the opportunity to access a safe space to sleep since May. All in all, from April through July, 37 St. Stephen’s Street Outreach clients accessed housing. In the last month alone, St. Stephen’s Street Outreach team made 190 visits to more than 40 different locations throughout Hennepin County.
Looking ahead, our Street Outreach team is focused on preparing for winter. While being unsheltered in the summer brings dangers of extreme heat and storms, early frosts in September have served as a reminder that the dangers of Minnesota winters are well on their way. Street Outreach Program Manager John says that the most important things people can do to help right now are to donate winter survival gear, and to speak up to all levels of elected officials – stressing your expectations for a comprehensive response to homelessness that includes winter emergency shelter. Says Lead Outreach Worker (Military Focus) Erika, “We need more affordable housing, more high-quality public housing, and a change in attitudes toward those with no housing.”