Ironically, their closest address is Mother Teresa of Calcutta Boulevard. They are shaded in the saintly city by a place that celebrates resurrection — appropriate since they are seeking revival each morning below St. Paul Cathedral’s dome. Blocks from the power held within Minnesota’s State Capitol, our metro area’s next tent city of homeless people takes shape.
Unlike the one that has developed along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis, which now has 130+ tents with port-o-potties, a water tank, hand washing stations, security cameras and roving politicians, police officers and advocates, this one is routinely told to break down and disappear and, without an indoor option for shelter, they resurrect. I could title this the magic of the tent city because of their skilled disappearing act in the light of day.
As someone who has worked with people experiencing homelessness for nearly 25 years, I join my colleagues in visiting those who are sleeping in public, hidden or in plain sight, because of a lack of shelter. This call to action is not for increased wages or more affordable housing; everyone knows income is not matching the cost of housing. Everyone knows that even if this does occur, it will be years in the making.
This appeal is to dismiss skepticism and isolationism and believe that people are seeking help and take action, knowing that we are capable of meeting their need for shelter.“Are you from the mental institution … here to take me back?” said an earnest man who has made a home by hanging four bedsheets under a bridge deck at yet another camp visited in our metro area. He dismissed us and returned to talking to the sky. At his location, other dwellers in tents pay him no mind but let him stay nearby. He’s the neighbor nobody talks to. There are increasing numbers of very isolated, very unhealthy people who need and deserve care but are now living in public. They sleep next to workers at Amazon, Target Field and the Mall of America in camps or on the light rail trains.
The shelter myth
Most may assume that people can just go to a shelter, because they know programs exist. The reality is that for families in every county but Hennepin, which has a right-to-shelter policy for families, and for all adults, age 18 to 75 or older, shelter is full or nonexistent. In recent years, our federal government has mandated a coordinated entry system. This produces a waiting list for shelter and housing. Your local county can now tell you that, for instance, children in 70 families are waiting for shelter in Ramsey County; they are on a waiting list for an emergency. When St. Paul Public Schools has to work with children who will be sleeping in vehicles this winter, one is hard-pressed to understand why the 99.6 percent of Minnesotans who have a stable place to sleep aren’t protecting the children (and adults) who don’t.
It’s time for people with housing to not cling to the story they heard that someone chooses to be homeless or that it’s too expensive to fix. Believe that people are choosing homelessness? I invite you to sit with the staff in your community’s shelter intake center and listen to staff all day long turn away people begging for a safe place to close their eyes. We don’t have the money? If I need to go to jail tonight, I will be incarcerated. If I need hospitalization, I will be hospitalized. If I call the police or the fire department, vehicles will come. What if I don’t call any of them? Why can I not be a law-abiding person with some measure of health and warrant a place to sleep safely?
An example from the ’80s
In the 1980s, 13 faith communities in Minneapolis alone opened their doors for 40-bed-or-so-sized shelters. These are considered small; they have some economy of scale for staffing, but allow for programming that can be culturally competent or might serve a special population. People are seeking shelter in order to maintain their blood sugar, refrain from vomiting with the flu, abstain until they can get into treatment and restrain the demons in their heads that no one is helping them leave behind. Shelter can be a place where with enough rest of the body and spirit, one can resolve his or her own housing situation and not need a subsidized long-term supportive housing program.
Imagine what would happen if the Cathedral’s Archbishop Hebda joined metro area rabbis, imams and pastors in informing their congregations that they would allow social service programs to shelter homeless people in a few of their buildings, not for a week but until they had a home? Imagine if Minnesota’s next governor said tents may stay on the front lawn of our Capitol, without daily resurrection, until those sleeping inside them have emergency shelter?
Monica Nilsson is an advocate for people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota.
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