ROCHESTER, Minn. — Deb Albach has a place to call home for the first time in 10 years.
After a decade of being homeless in Rochester, Minn., she knows the transition won’t be easy.
“That’s one thing I’m going to have to deal with,” she said of feeling enclosed after moving into Castleview Apartments. “Coming inside after being out for so long will be hard.”
It’s something faced by many who suddenly find shelter after years of living outside, and it’s an experience a growing number of people have faced in recent months.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic landed in Olmsted County, 87 homeless individuals and eight families facing homelessness have been housed through county and local nonprofit services, according to Mary O'Neil, the county’s housing stability team program manager.
For Albach, finding housing came after she filled out a coordinated entry assessment with Dan Fifield of The Landing MN.
The assessment is used to ensure people experiencing a housing crisis have fair and equal access to programs based on defined priorities, and it’s one of the only ways to get on the list for various housing options.
Days, and even hours, before she received her new keys for one of 32 apartments at the Salvation Army-operated Castleview, Albach said her doubts continued.
“You try to have hope out here, but a lot of time it dies off after a while,” she said as she waited to pick up keys on Aug. 7.
“It’s like you don’t believe it will happen,” she added as her voice trailed off.
Albach said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges for people struggling to find housing.
Olmsted County opened a nightly shelter in the Mayo Civic Center, but Albach said she opted to camp with others outside the center of the city because of lingering worries about being in a confined space at night.
“What a better way to make us all disappear if they had us all locked up in the same area,” she said, adding that anxiety and her post-traumatic stress disorder make some group settings uncomfortable.
After 10 years of camping year-round, Albach said she found a site in southwest Rochester near U.S. 52 was her preferred overnight option.
Still, as she biked throughout the city to tap into a variety of services, including the Salvation Army and the city-run day center established at Mayo Civic Center, she said it was eerie to see few people on the streets during statewide stay-at-home orders.
“It was like a ghost town because everyone was locked in their homes,” she said, noting it added to the day-to-day challenges of being homeless, which can require a half-day’s effort to secure a meal and a shower.
“Everything you have to deal with in a day is just so stressful,” she said. “You just don’t have enough hours in a day.”
The uncertainty continues and needs could grow in the wake of the pandemic.
“That is something we thought about,” said Ryan Cardarella, board president of the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, which has reopened with limited capacity. “There might be some downstream economic impact, as things go along, with evictions and as bills stack up. We may see some people we haven’t seen before or haven't seen in a long time.”
Albach said she’s already noticing new faces, but said many appear to be coming from larger cities, hoping to escape crowded situations and find emerging resources.
“I think a lot of people are closer to that point than ever before,” she said, adding that she understands the shock that comes from finding yourself homeless.
Losing her footing
Albach said each person brings their own story and experience to the shelters and camps.
“If people had the patience to listen to some of the different stories, they’d understand how homeless people come about because it’s not anything we planned for,” she said.
The 52-year-old Albach made her first visit to Rochester in her 30s, searching for an answer to long-term leg problems linked to childhood cancer, degenerative bone disease and the effects of long hours as an executive chef in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Mayo Clinic appeared to be the only hospital willing to consider surgery, but it took years for it to happen as other options were explored.
Throughout the time, Albach said she gave up her $40-an-hour union restaurant job, where she had worked for years. She also sold her home and eventually bought a pair of mobile homes in southeast Minnesota, "flipping" one and living in another.
But it was a personal tragedy that she said landed her on the streets.
“While I was out here, I ended up losing my son,” she said of her only living relative.
She had dropped him off at his father’s home in Tennessee before he was expected to enter the Marine Corps. During that visit, he was killed in what appeared to be a robbery.
Albach said that’s when she lost her footing.
“It took my whole entire retirement,” she said. “Everything I’m supposed to be living on now, I had to spend on a funeral.”
While three surgeries in eight months replaced bone with titanium to address the issues that brought her to Rochester, she said everything else took time to overcome and eventually landed her with only what she could carry in four backpacks as she moved between secluded campsites in the city.
“You have it all one day, and it seems like the next couple months you start losing everything,” said Albach, who lives on Social Security disability payments while trying to tackle day jobs, when possible.
With a new home at Castleview, she said she’s hopeful things will change.
“At least I will have an opportunity to try to rebuild," she said, "to have a goal.”