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St. Paul homeless camp's days may be numbered

ST. PAUL — In the shadow of the St. Paul Cathedral, at the south end of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Boulevard, lies the city’s newest and largest homeless camp.

A tent town compared with Minneapolis’ tent city, the camp has grown over the summer from single digits to dozens of inhabitants, most perched on the edge of a windy, tree-lined Interstate 35E overlook.

There, two of the camp’s veterans recently huddled around a new kid.

“I was just sleeping on Metro Transit,” said the kid, who looked to be in his late teens.

“Aw, that’s not safe; they’ll rob you,” Ralph Burras replied. The older man had been staying at the camp for months but just recently found other housing. Still, he returns to help out sometimes. He owned an old pickup, which went a long way.

“I know. I don’t carry any wallet on there,” replied the kid, who declined to give his name.

“If you take your shoes off, you’ll lose ’em. Got something in your pocket, they’ll cut it,” Burras reiterated.

The camp felt a little safer, if not safe, with its two-dozen loosely packed tents surrounding a paved path, used by joggers and those looking for a shortcut from downtown to Cathedral Hill. All the tents are hastily constructed: Every week now, the city makes their owners break them down, so they can scrub the site clean.

Beyond that, the city appears to be in a holding pattern with the camp: waiting for a county-run indoor “safe space” to open in November, when things really get cold.

“Our interest right now is maintaining that site, so it doesn’t pose any health risk,” said Ricardo Cervantes, head of St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections, which is taking the lead on the camp issue.

“On the other hand, we’re not looking to inconvenience them.”

Still, Cervantes admits the city has received plenty of requests from nearby residents urging him to please inconvenience them. There have been 93 citizen calls to police from July through September.

Chatter at City Hall about the encampment, which largely sits on land owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, picked up last month after resident calls to several departments.

The parks, police and inspections departments had all asked for guidance from the mayor’s office about enforcement “since our standard procedures have not worked,” according to an internal email sent by DSI spokesman Robert Humphrey.

Finally, an Oct. 8 memo by DSI deputy director Travis Bistodeau included a “recommended short-term strategy” that “remaining on the site will not be tolerated for any period of time after November 1st.” He noted that the mayor’s office supported telling campers that use of the camp wouldn’t be allowed “as other shelter resources become available.”

As larger-scale cleanings of the site began, “We want to be very respectful to the group of unsheltered folks who are being displaced and I want to make sure that message is clear,” public works director Kathy Lantry said the next morning in an email string.

An Oct. 9 email by Bistodeau summarized talking points to use with camp residents during cleanings, reiterating that “camp residents should begin looking for alternative housing now, as use of the 35E site will not be allowed later than November.”

But last week, Cervantes said those words wouldn’t be backed by a hard line of enforcement.

“That email sets out recommendations. … The mayor has stressed that there will be no evictions. We’re not going to require people camping to move, without the ability to provide some options.

“I think the first order is to evaluate: where can these people go?”

Another (temporary) option

Once the county’s “winter safe space” opens in the downtown basement of the Ramsey County Government Center East, it will be able to house 64 people — up from 50 last year — for the season.

“A lot of the individuals on the hill aren’t prepared for winter and inclement weather. They’re not really tried-and-true campers,” said Chris Michels, a senior program manager with Catholic Charities who visits the camp multiple times a week. “Staying out, it’s easier to make that choice when it’s sunny and 70.”

Burras agrees: no heavy tarps over the tents, no cardboard or plastic beneath. No permanency. Add that to the fact that the I-35E stretch creates a natural wind tunnel along its north edge. The homeless have used the area for years, but had always stuck to the heavily shielded tree line above the path, with a steep slope that isn’t ideal.

For some reason, Michels said, by July the half-dozen homeless who had used the site over the years grew to as many as 50 tents, with twice as many occupants.

By October, that number has already dipped to about half that. Burras speculated that the weekly cleanings and breakdowns had driven some away.

“There were twice as many tents, but since they (police) have been red-tagging (the tents for cleaning), they run up by the Cathedral, but there’s nowhere to go,” said Joe C., a camp resident who’s been homeless for 20 years.

The breakdowns could have been worse — but several of the residents actually thanked police for the way they handled it.

“The police have been unbelievably professional, very compassionate. They help people move stuff versus just tossing it in the garbage,” said camp resident Will B.

Health and safety

Still, Michels and some of the camp’s residents noted it wasn’t the safest place, either. Safer than the Minneapolis camp, residents claimed, but still a place where you had to watch yourself, and your bags.

Police cruisers drive though the camp a half-dozen times a night, proactively.

Retroactively, of the 93 police calls about the camp over three months, 34 were reports of people living in tents with “no other behavior or concern noted,” and 21 were medical calls, handled by the fire department.

The remaining 38 were “behavior-based,” including reports of threats, assaults and harassment.

Comparing that figure with calls for a typical downtown city block over three months, for context, is difficult: By day, those tall buildings are full of people.

“There have been incidents there, but not to the degree that it’s a den of all kinds of terrible things,” Cervantes said.

Anne Barry, deputy Ramsey County manager for health and wellness, added: “We have many concerns. Our concerns are from a public health perspective.”

In particular, food and feces. An email by a member of Health Care for the Homeless, a volunteer group of medical professionals, forwarded to the city noted increased concerns over human waste — potential breeding grounds for hepatitis A and E. coli.

Barry said she received some pushback from people when she said the tents needed to come down weekly to clean.

When asked whether there were any known outbreaks of disease or illness at the site, Barry said, “I don’t know that we’ve detected anything.”

If you build it…

The new space might open in a week, but many of the campers say they don’t like shelters — at least the existing ones downtown. “Too many rules” was a common refrain. Some had been banned for a month or longer. Many never tried to go back, even if they could.

Yes, there are drug issues, and not insignificant ones, that keep homeless people out, advocates note.

But the main issues with the shelters are the “three P’s” — things that absolutely forbid access to downtown’s largest overnight space, ­Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground.

“Partners, property and pets. … There’s this segment along the 35E path I call the ‘situationally unsheltered,’” Michels said.

There’s a men’s shelter and a women’s shelter, completely segregated. Have a partner? You can’t bunk with them. No pets. And you’re allowed to bring in only what you can carry. Got a shopping cart? Leave it outside.

Even the most ardent advocates say the camp is both a help and a hindrance to the homeless.

“You go in there heavy, and everyone will scatter to the winds,” said Michels, whose job it is to find and help homeless people. “But by allowing the camp to go on, it really kind of masks the crisis we’re in.”

How to get help

About to lose your home? Looking for housing assistance? A resource list can be found at