ST. CLOUD – A fledgling organization is helping those experiencing homelessness safely navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Homeless Helping Homeless was founded in 2019 by Harry Fleegel and a coalition of people who have experienced homelessness. Fleegel, who had recently retired from a career helping immigrants set up small businesses, was a regular volunteer at Place of Hope in St. Cloud.

“I decided watching TV wasn’t the way to spend retirement,” Fleegel laughed.

In their earliest meetings, Fleegel says the group tackled the issue of access to reliable transportation.

“Buses don’t always run where or where you want them to,” he said. “People were having trouble getting to their jobs, doctor’s appointments and things of that nature. That was one of the first things people were talking about when we got together.”

Fleegel said volunteers with cars put together a schedule to help those without transportation get to work, job interviews and medical appointments.

The next order of business, Fleegel says, was to help those climbing out of homeless find essential household items.

“All of their funds were being used up on an apartment deposit and the first month’s rent,” Fleegel said. “So, they get into the apartment, but they have nothing – no furniture, tables, chairs, beds, dishes, anything.”

Fleegel says Homeless Helping Homeless was soon able to help furnish apartments and homes with donated items.

Last winter,  Homeless Helping Homeless began working on their third and what Fleegel describes as their most pressing issue: getting people off the street and into safe, warm housing.

“Last winter was very, very cold,” Fleegel said. “We had people sleeping outside in tents, people getting frostbite. They needed a warmer place to be, and all of the existing homeless shelters were either full or had requirements that made it impossible for some of the folks to get in there.”

Homeless Helping Homeless began partnering with hotels to house individuals and families shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“That’s when we started working with motels in a major way,” Fleegel said.

Fleegel says the city of St. Cloud awarded Homeless Helping Homeless with grants to pay for long-term, reduced rate hotel lodging.

“A lot of local charities and churches have also provided funds to get people off the street and into safe, sanitary conditions,” Fleegel said.

As of mid-July, Fleegel says 142 people – 35 of whom are children – are living in a St. Cloud-area hotel.

“Sometimes hotels contact us, some of them contacted us and wanted to help out because they knew it was a national problem and they wanted to help us out,” said Fleegel. “We’re using the same motels we used in the wintertime. We already had a relationship with them. We arranged for lower rates than normal, but none of the people staying there pay anything.”

Fleegel says some people have been in a hotel since the program began.

“They’re using this time to find jobs, to save up their money for their security deposits and first month’s rent,” Fleegel said. “It’s very difficult to find apartments in the city of St. Cloud within the price range that these people can afford.”

Fleegel says many of the people they serve are dealing with barriers to housing – past evictions, joblessness, poor credit or a criminal record.

“It’s almost impossible to find housing with any of those things on your record,” he said. “The process is oftentimes difficult for them because they have no phones or mailing addresses. You can’t mail a rental application to them. So, it requires a lot of in-person, face-to-face time.”

Hotel residents are also provided with daily meals. Fleegel says about 60 volunteers regularly deliver meals and other items, such as clothing and personal hygiene supplies. Meals are prepared in approved kitchens with stringent sanitary practices, and deliveries are contact-free.

“(Volunteers) just knock and leave meals outside their doors,” he said. “That way, we keep the people in the hotels safe, and we keep the people delivering the meals safe.”

“It’s quite an operation,” he added.

Fleegel says no one living in any of the hotels has tested positive for COVID-19.
“The motels have filled their purposes,” he said. “This is why the grants were given to us – to keep them safe from the virus.”

Fleegel doesn’t have COVID-19 statistics for the population of homeless people in St. Cloud still living outdoors, but suspects the number of positive cases remains low.

“I have to believe it isn’t a high number, because we’ve already placed the most susceptible people in hotels,” he said. “That’s how we prioritize. Those who are most prone to getting the illness, we place first. The young and the healthy, much to their chagrin, have to stay outside until we have room.”

“And we’ve got a waiting list of about 166 people,” Fleegel added. “If I have an opening in a hotel, it’s usually filled in a matter of minutes.”

Fleegel says Homeless Helping Homeless can always use more volunteers. They’re also in need of monetary donations and supplies like tents and sleeping bags for those still living outdoors.

To learn more, visit Homeless Helping Homeless's website.