ST. PAUL — Staggering a bit as he spoke, Jason Lance stood between the proverbial rock and a dismally cold hard place against the backdrop of a bright Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 6. Scattered in the snow to his right were damaged boxes spilling apples, uncooked pasta, doughnuts, bread loaves and other donated foods.
Some of the food, he noted with a wry laugh, wasn’t the right fit for a nearly toothless transient like himself.
Lance wasn’t chuckling, however, as he pointed out that someone, or some group of people, had come in the night to rummage through and overturn the growing food supply in the 12-tent homeless encampment at Snelling and Concordia avenues — hardly the first time.
To his left, stapled to a makeshift container full of firewood, a notice from the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections made clear that camp residents have until Monday, Jan. 11, to tear down their tents and leave the premises. Lance, who doesn’t trust shelters, doesn’t know where he and his six co-residents will turn.
“How the (expletive) are you going to kick people out in the cold when I’m already out in the cold?” said Lance, who has made the streets of St. Paul his home for the better part of 25 years. “How do you kick me out when I’m already out?”
As temperatures drop, those questions continue to dog St. Paul and Ramsey County officials, social service providers and others concerned for the fate of homeless residents in the city’s 81 known outdoor encampments.
Backed by state and federal funding, city and county officials have scrambled to make alternative arrangements — most notably by opening new individual-room shelter spaces such as the former Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul — with full knowledge that not every homeless resident will embrace the option.
“It’s the hardest policy space that I’ve encountered,” said St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher. Tincher has been visiting the camps throughout the pandemic.
“We’re now at the point where we have enough capacity to meet the need to house people who are sheltering outdoors right now,” she said. “The challenge that we have is it’s hard to get some people to take us up on those offers.”
Eight homeless camps to be cleared
Like Minneapolis before them, St. Paul officials began clearing the first of the city’s eight largest homeless camps on Dec. 21 and plan to continue such clearings through at least Jan. 19. Exploding propane tanks have engulfed as many as seven tents at a time in flames. Still, the decision leaves many homeless advocates torn.
Molly Jalma, a spokeswoman for the Listening House day shelter, pointed to the example of the homeless woman who arrived Tuesday at Freedom House, her organization’s new satellite location on West Seventh Street, with feet so frostbitten she needed immediate medical attention.
“On one hand, the elements are so harsh and people are in real danger of fire, frostbite and violence,” Jalma said. “The city has stepped up to create more overnight shelter and drop-in sites.”
But there’s a serious public health consideration looming, on top of the indignity suffered by residents of losing the only place they call home. “When camps are closed, people scatter and it’s more difficult for outreach workers and health care providers to administer essential services — vaccinations, for example,” she said.
That’s an especially serious concern in the time of COVID-19, which requires two shots to be given weeks apart.
And there are other questions.
Why have the counts of homeless living outdoors in St. Paul ballooned tenfold during the pandemic, from 30 or so a year prior to more than 300?
Are the unsheltered homeless everyday St. Paul residents left destitute by the pandemic-era economy or shut out of the housing market by a shortage of affordable rental housing?
Or are they the chronic homeless from across the metro, suddenly facing limited shelter capacity due to new social-distancing rules? How many homeless residents come to St. Paul from outside the city seeking medical and social services?
Perhaps the thorniest question of all involves next steps. What’s the most humane and sustainable way to house diverse homeless populations that range from displaced families who need a temporary roof to chronic homeless who resist housing?
“To think about the individuals that we need to serve in any way that’s monolithic is just folly,” said Tincher, who has come to know many tent residents on a first-name basis. “It runs the gamut.”
More than once, the deputy mayor has called the St. Paul Fire Department to tend to a person’s open wound. In Minneapolis, a recent death at a homeless camp was deemed a homicide. A few weeks ago, the body of a homeless resident was found near the St. Paul Public Works facility on Dale Street. The cause of death was exposure.
One-third of homeless from outside cities
Over the summer, as it became apparent the numbers of unsheltered homeless in both Minneapolis and St. Paul had grown precipitously, the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections conducted a survey of 86 homeless residents in and around downtown.
Nearly three-fourths of them stayed in downtown-area encampments.
Of those surveyed, 64 percent said they were from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but more than a third hailed from well outside the city. In all, 71 percent were male, and 62 percent self-identified as people of color.
“People were shocked to suddenly see the numbers of homeless increase tenfold overnight, but the fact is they were homeless before, but they were most likely couch surfing, or doubled up, or living in shelters that had to reduce capacity during the pandemic,” said St. Paul City Council member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the downtown area.
“I think we’re doing the right thing, and city leaders — the deputy mayor and mayor — they know the shelter encampment residents by name,” Noecker said. “This is not a callous approach. There’s nothing humane about letting people live outside.”
Moratorium against closure fails to gain ground
Council member Nelsie Yang disagrees.
Since late October, she’s visited groups of Hmong people who have fashioned plywood living structures in the woods of her East Side ward near Lake Phalen, the Duluth and Case Recreation Center and by the intersection of Maryland Avenue and Johnson Parkway.
She’s met individuals in their early 20s and late 50s. One couple had both lost their jobs during the pandemic. All said they would rather stay together, around people of their own language and culture and near Hmong shops and families, rather than blend into the general homeless population at downtown shelters.
Since before Christmas, she’s tried in vain to convince her fellow council members to support an emergency moratorium stopping camp tear-downs. She’s still trying.
“I don’t support the evictions, and to me they are evictions,” Yang said. “When you talk to people who are unhoused, they do consider the tents or the infrastructure they built with their own hands their home. It’s the most dignified place they have in the moment.”
Sara Liegl, coordinator of the Project Home mobile family shelter, said that as much as homeowners sometimes object to having a new shelter move in nearby, potential shelter residents share many of the same concerns around crime and quality of life.
“For Minnesota, we’re having a pretty easy winter, but it was only a couple winters ago we had subzero temperatures for weeks,” said Liegl. “If that happens, I can just imagine the death tolls in the encampments.”
Some resist sheltering
On a Monday four days before Christmas, with a winter storm and below-zero temperatures on the horizon, the city of St. Paul began clearing the sizable encampment at downtown Kellogg Mall Park, just down the street from City Hall.
Some 27 residents agreed to pack up their tents and move into shelter spaces set up by Ramsey County, mostly at downtown Mary Hall or a vacant Luther Seminary dorm in St. Anthony Park.
Leading up to the closures, some had expressed concerns about COVID, shared bathrooms, behaviors and other hesitations, but went anyway. Couples wanted rooms they could share. Some worried about the fate of their personal effects. Gay and lesbian couples wanted to stay together in a shelter where they’d feel safe.
“With multiple sources of COVID relief funding, the city and the county partnered,” Tincher said. “How can we think about this with a long-term strategic view in terms of serving folks?”
The goal was to get case workers and services assigned to as many residents as possible, but resources are finite, especially time. Some shelter residents stay a single night.
And on Dec. 21, not everyone was able to be placed, or willing. One man openly acknowledged he was wanted on a criminal warrant. Others had been barred from certain shelters because of past incidents of violence or drug use.
“If we had 36 different individuals we needed to service, we had 36 different solutions,” Tincher said. “And we were able to serve 27 of them. But there’s gaps.”
Among those gaps, there was the woman that day who threw items at people and approached Tincher begging for drugs. There was the man who was not allowed at Mary Hall because he’d been caught with knives there during a previous visit.
‘We're not able to force adults to do things'
And there was the woman with a tendency to expose herself and defecate in public. The day of the encampment clearing, she did the latter three times. Tincher said the woman was taken to the new shelter at Luther Seminary, but given her behavior, she was only allowed to stay one night.
“We’re not able to force adults to do things,” Tincher said. “I can’t make them go inside. But anybody who spent five minutes with those two women would say, ‘Yeah, but you’re not able to make a good decision for your health and safety right now.’ It’s really heartbreaking. It breaks my heart.”
With the Bethesda shelter coming online that week, the St. Paul Fire Department visited several other encampments around the city, encouraging residents to accept shelter spaces in advance of the storm. Most declined.
“Some people who are homeless I’ve talked to can go straight from a camp to an apartment, but a lot of people need interim supports,” said city council member Mitra Jalali.
She said she foresees a fresh wave of homelessness once federal eviction protections are lifted.
“I think there should be an effort targeted to the state Legislature to take that on. … We have to do something different,” Jalali said. “I don’t know when the eviction moratoriums are going to expire, but there’s a lot of people who are one policy protection away from being homeless.”