The camps seem everywhere these days, as 2020’s overlapping health and economic crises make the housing crisis worse. Squeezed from alternatives, people with nowhere else to go live in tents under bridges, along riverbanks, in parks, along railroad tracks, on edges of bluffs, or anywhere else with a scare modicum of shelter. Especially as winter gets predictably colder, the latest concern is that fires may break out as people struggle to keep warm in makeshift ways.
“We have been experiencing fires at encampments that have gotten out of hand,” warned Trista MatasCastillo, who represents northern St. Paul on the Ramsey County Board. “People have been injured and lost their possessions, and it has jeopardized the whole situation. It’s really important that people don’t drop off propane tanks or firewood in this incredibly dry year.”
After a propane tank exploded last week in a camp of 30 people along downtown St. Paul’s Kellogg Boulevard, city officials announced a clearance of the city’s largest camps. As the Pioneer Press reported, with a dozen different propane tanks in the camp, the Kellogg Park incident could have been much worse.
In a critical sense, the explosion and clearance are bad timing. The city and county team, part of a housing effort called Action Plan One, has been working to open new housing options that would ensure everyone cleared from a camp has an indoor alternative somewhere in the city. Unfortunately, many of those new beds are a few weeks away from being fully available.
It’s a shortage that bothers people like St. Paul Council Member Mitra Jalali, who wrote on Twitter Monday that “at [a] bare minimum this shouldn’t happen without workable indoor shelter option as a chosen alternative [and] relevant individualized supports for everyone living at the site.”
The good news is that these options for people experiencing homelessness are just around the corner thanks to dogged efforts by city and county workers. That is … if people are willing to come in from the cold.
A tenfold increase in unsheltered people
The pandemic halved the capacity of St. Paul’s shelters this spring, and meanwhile the city’s unsheltered population grew by an order of magnitude. In a recent “typical” year, you might find around 30 people living outside in St. Paul; in 2020 that number has been in the 300s.
“Homelessness had been an issue before, but COVID-19 expanded the problem for various reasons,” said Keith Lattimore, who heads the new Department of Housing Stability at Ramsey County. “We’re seeing folks who are not working, or lost jobs or have economic issues that combine with the situation of being homeless. So the CARES money was tremendous.”
Last March, a stream of congressional CARES funding allowed the county to begin a more widespread response to the homelessness crisis than ever before. As of December, the county has spent $7.2 million of CARES money on emergency shelter, on top of existing county dollars. In addition, the state earmarked almost $3 million for shelter, all of which has allowed for a rapid expansion of alternatives for people living outside.
“Since COVID hit in March, we have brought 700 additional beds online,” explained MatasCastillo. “Most of those are 24-hours-a-day [spaces], so we are no longer asking people to go outside during the day.”
As I reported in June, a lot of the new beds are in hotels scattered around the county. But this fall, the St. Paul and Ramsey County group has figured out how to find more permanent temporary places for people to go. For example, the county has been gradually opening new day shelters and emergency housing in places like an old fire station on West 7th Street and a Luther Seminary dormitory in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, which recently opened to serve 75 women and couples for the next four months.
A fluctuating daily census
The imposing task of finding where people are living outside, and where they might go, falls to the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI). This year, they have devoted at least one full-time inspector to the encampments spread around the city, on top of many other staff working in teams on the problem. Each day a joint city and county group conducts a count of how many people are living outside on any given day, and staff pay close attention to how the numbers are changing.
“The daily census comes out, and it gives us the number of rooms available,” said Lattimore at Ramsey County, who reported 309 people outside as of last Thursday. “We prepped and hired folks to put these standards in place, so that we don’t ever have [hotel] rooms available with people sleeping outside that want to come in.”
Nobody at the county wants to remove an encampment of people without having somewhere for displaced people to go. However, not everyone wants to come in from the outside, and unsheltered people have a variety of reasons for what makes them feel safe and comfortable. County staff work case-by-case to figure out how to help people.
“Some people might have animals, [or] some may have dependency issues that shelters may not allow,” explained Lattimore. “Some may have other things: mental health concerns, being leery of government, and some just have their reasons. We haven’t been able to reach everyone, but our efforts are to make people who are unsheltered feel safe.”
“Our job is to quickly assess how is their health: Are they OK? Do they need medical attention?” said Ricardo Cervantes, who heads DSI and has been working with staff to understand new challenges. “As best as possible, we try to reduce any trauma adding to their expenses an additional hardship. Rather, we work to listen and understand. These are human beings that find themselves in this situation, and may not understand what options they have.”
In response to feedback from people living outside, Lattimore pointed out that the county recently changed its policy around GLBTQ couples, allowing them to qualify for rooms at different sites.
The search for the right building
Finding appropriate buildings poses another challenge for the team, especially places that allow people to have private rooms during a pandemic. While Hennepin County has spent millions purchasing hotels, in Ramsey County the work has turned toward identifying suitable temporary locations. Earlier this winter, Cervantes’ DSI worked with a real estate team to brainstorm a list of possible buildings that might work as temporary shelters, eventually narrowing down to a list of more than 50 buildings.
Along with separate rooms, the ideal temporary shelter provides some open and shared spaces for the “wraparound” services that are critical for success. These include rooms for a diverse mix of social work and health care staff to be on hand to solve problems for people.
“Bethesda, for example, is a near perfect match in configuration and building readiness,” said Cervantes. “We could provide a Certificate of Occupancy that marries all of building’s life safety systems with the programmatic and operational systems to ensure it would be able to operate as a temp shelter.”
Until recently, the Bethesda building, just north of the state Capitol, was being used as a dedicated COVID hospital. When its owner, Fairview Health, announced its closure in October, the county quickly moved to get access to the space. Despite some concerns by neighbors over the transition, the State Capital Area Architectural and Planning Board (which has jurisdiction over the neighborhood) approved the permit for the new shelter at a meeting last week.
The temporary shelter spaces are part of Action Plan One, which is aimed at providing both day and night space for people living outside. (For the record, Action Plan Two is for feeding people and providing on-site trash and other services to outdoor camps.)
Other facilities that have become emergency shelters include city buildings like the 1920s-era Harriet Island Pavilion on the West Side, and the Duluth and Case Rec Center on the East Side. The process is ongoing, and, if the city gets site approval, will include the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a former Catholic residence in Highland Park.
“I think it’s basic humanity,” said MatasCastillo. “I really feel like it is our duty to ensure that we’re taking care of our most vulnerable citizens. People who are unsheltered are incredibly vulnerable to the weather, have weakened immune systems from ongoing exposure, and not just because of COVID.”
Even without further assistance from the state, the city/county program will be coming online within weeks with enough emergency housing to last until June. Yet with ongoing instability caused by the unemployment and pandemic, it’s impossible to predict future needs. The city’s emergency footing is likely to continue.
“I never would have thought we would have been activating our Rec Centers for homeless shelters,” admitted Cervantes. “We have an emergency plan to activate facilities in the city for other types of emergency [like natural disasters], but this crisis is in itself an emergency.”