Lori Halbur of Catholic Charities’ Homeless Elders Program remembers well the reactions of her clients. When notices were sent out to older adults staying at an overnight shelter inviting them to move into the Best Western Capitol Ridge Hotel, nobody believed it.

“It was at the start of COVID,” said Halbur, a resident of Saint Paul’s Snelling-Hamline neighborhood. “We invited our shelter guests—those who were older or had significant health conditions—to move into the hotel as a safer alternative. Many said, ‘What’s the catch? This sounds too good to be true.’

 

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In his private room at the Best Western Capitol Ridge Hotel, Clyde Bolden extols the virtues of the lawn chair he used when he lived on the street. Bolden is visiting with Lori Halbur, a social worker with Catholic Charities’ Homeless Elders Program. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“At the hotel, people have their own bathroom and a door that locks to keep their possessions safe,” said Halbur. They have a place they don’t have to leave during the day like in traditional shelters. People can catch up on their sleep or watch TV, and they have a small fridge. But most of all, it gives them a place where they can social-distance and remain safe from COVID.”

Currently, there are about 100 individuals living at Capitol Ridge through the program, according to Halbur. The original clients were all staying at Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground shelter in Saint Paul. Their move to the hotel enabled the overnight shelter to reduce capacity and allow the clients who remained to social-distance.

“The hotel shelter has most certainly saved lives,” said Melea Blanchard, supervisor of the Homeless Elders Program. “Older adults facing homelessness are almost always more vulnerable than the rest of the population, and they deserve to have a safe and dignified place to stay.”

A public-private partnership

The hotel for the homeless is a collaboration between Catholic Charities and Ramsey County. When COVID began to threaten in March 2020, Catholic Charities approached the county in search of a safer alternative for its elderly clients. The county acted immediately, and soon there were 60 homeless clients staying at the hotel on Saint Anthony Avenue across I-94 from downtown. By late summer, there were 125 clients at the hotel.

The county pays for the rooms and the services at the hotel with funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. Clients receive three meals a day along with chemical and mental health services, workforce and veterans services and “daily activities for mind, body and spirit,” according to Ramsey County director of communications John Siqveland.

Ramsey County has signed a contract with the hotel to maintain housing for homeless elders through May 2022. Throughout their stay, the elders continue to receive help from Catholic Charities in finding a permanent home. Some of the original clients have since moved on to affordable rental apartments or homes.

Number of homeless seniors is growing

Halbur, who joined Catholic Charities in 2012 after finishing a masters degree in social work at the University of Saint Thomas, became part of the Homeless Elders Program in 2016. Since then, she has witnessed an increase in homelessness in Minnesota, especially among older adults. “There are many people who are experiencing homelessness for the first time,” she said. “And they’re often completely lost. They don’t know what to do.”

According to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, there were 10,233 people in Minnesota who were homeless on October 5, 2018, the date of the most recent study. Of those, 1,054 or about 10 percent were age 55 or older.

“Approximately 25 percent of the clients served in our single-adult shelters over the past year were age 55 or older,” said Catholic Charities data specialist Jessica Meyerson. “More than half of the residents in our permanent supportive housing are 55 and older. These percentages are only expected to increase as the metro population as a whole continues to age.”

“Early on in the pandemic, Ramsey County worked with hotels to secure short-term contracts,” Siqveland said. “We’ve since developed longer-term contracts with Bethesda Hospital, Stub Hall at Luther Seminary, Mary Hall in downtown Saint Paul and several hotels, including Capitol Ridge.” But as overnight shelters began bringing their facilities back to full capacity, Siqveland said, “we’ve scaled back our use of hotels, instead referring clients primarily to Bethesda, Luther and Mary Hall. Capitol Ridge is the only hotel we’re still contracting with.”

Just a crisis away from becoming homeless

“All of us are just a crisis away from being homeless,” Halbur said. “Sometimes for older adults, there may be a need for hospitalization and then rehabilitation. When that’s no longer needed, they’re told to go home. If they hadn’t been paying their rent for three months, that home may no longer be there.”

Other older adults, when they experience the death of a loved one, “may just stop functioning,” Halbur said. “The grief is so strong, they stop paying bills and all of a sudden they’re homeless. Or, if the death was of a spouse or partner who paid half of the bills, they may lose their housing.

“I think as a society, we don’t want to acknowledge that we don’t take care of our aging community or that there are so many older adults out there who don’t have family connections,” Halbur said. “Often times, our older clients are quiet and don’t want to draw attention to themselves. There is sometimes the feeling of shame or embarrassment with being homeless.

“It’s important for us to know that there are way too many older adults living in shelters, rundown hotels, cars, riding the trains and buses, sleeping outside in our very own community,” Halbur said. “And that number is increasing all the time. My hope is that our community will step up and build relationships with older adults —neighbors, church members or others who cross our paths on a regular basis—and make sure they have a place to call home.”

Helping elders maintain their housing may be as simple as mowing their lawn, sharing a meal or helping them make a call to the Senior Linkage Line if you notice their health is declining, according to Halbur. In this way, she said, elders may be able to stay in their home or find a home that better meets their needs – and not become homeless.

— Anne Murphy

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