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The making of a tent city

photo of tents along roadway
Courtesy of the author
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.

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.

photo of article author
Monica Nilsson
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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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 10/09/2018 - 08:41 am.

    About 12 years ago, I had some discussions about housing issues with a few homeless people in California. They had heard that Minnesota, despite its cold winters, actually had a comparatively decent shelter system because of the many churches that opened their doors. I wondered if perhaps this was based on old information – it seems that only a handful still do this today.

    This is all hearsay and conjecture, but it seems that today homelessness in the Twin Cities is rather unique thing nationwide – in terms of how many of them are locals who haven’t been bused in from elsewhere, and in how many of them are Native Americans. I’m not aware of any busing program here where we shift our homeless burden onto other parts of the country, but that is a huge issue that also serves to mask the depth of the problem.

    It seems likely that over the next few months, the tent cities will begin to dissipate as the cold snaps become ever harsher, and as relocation efforts commence. Once commuters and residents are no longer offered daily reminders that these people exist, sadly, the issue will once again fade from the public consciousness. With our mental health systems and veteran’s home programs already at the breaking point, what better example can we find to illustrate the fact that in our society, so many of our brothers and sisters end up being thrown away and forgotten?

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/09/2018 - 11:19 pm.

      In every city I have ever lived in or visited, I hear “The reason we have so many homeless people is that other cities bus theirs here.”

      This rumor was especially strong in Hawaii, where many people are convinced that the sidewalks of Waikiki are full of homeless people because “other states give their homeless plane tickets to come here.”

      However, if that were true, the homeless on Waikiki would be mostly white or African-American. Instead, they look Asian-American or native Hawaiian, or Samoan. A few are Mainlanders who went to Hawaii with dreams of “living in paradise,” and were laid low by the fact is that Hawaii has sky-high housing prices and mostly low-end jobs in the tourist industry.

      No one wants to believe that his or her city suffers from the conditions–high housing prices, low-wage jobs, and insufficient social services–that create homelessness. It’s easier to believe, wrongly, that homeless people have been “sent from somewhere else.” but wherever you go, the homeless are actually mostly local residents down on their luck.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/10/2018 - 07:27 am.

        “…but wherever you go, the homeless are actually mostly local residents down on their luck.”

        I’m sorry, but that simply isn’t true. The vast majority of people living on the street are addicted to drugs. In addition to addiction, many are mentally ill. Neither of those things qualify as down on their luck.

        People down on their luck stay with friends until they get back on their feet. Addicts soon run out of friends that will put them up.

        We really do need more supervised facilities for the mentally ill, but there is simply no way to help an addict that doesn’t want help. All we can do is make sure they do not become a hazard to public health.

      • Submitted by Tory Koburn on 10/10/2018 - 10:20 am.

        Setting aside the idea of most homeless in Hawaii being “bussed in” (which makes no sense, nor does the idea that cities are plunking down thousand-dollar plane tickets for homeless people to go there), I don’t mean to imply at all that most homeless in any given area are non-locals. There are, however, many major cities in the continental US that have dedicated homeless relocation programs. The Guardian has a very detailed article on this (google “homeless busing programs” and it should be at the top). Florida and New York have some of the biggest programs (the article only covers the continental 48, so I can’t speak for Hawaii. I would assume because of geography and the high cost of travel/living that most of their homeless people are local, as you stated).

        It’s really just sweeping people under the rug, and making them somebody else’s problem. If you listen to relocation program supporters around the Florida Keys, they supposedly believe that they don’t have homeless people there (because most of the land is owned by wealthy snowbirds and resorts – things like shelters or people sleeping outside aren’t great for property values). Of course, there are homeless people everywhere, the only difference is in how willing we are to open our eyes and admit it.

        I certainly agree that most of the people in these Twin Cities camps are from around here (which, morally speaking, isn’t really the issue). My point was that I am glad that we do not seem to be sweeping them under the rug, at least as much as some places do. It’s more than a rumor – it’s actually a big part of the problem in perpetuating our country’s inability to address homelessness.

      • Submitted by Bob Ewing on 10/23/2018 - 08:15 am.

        I know first hand in Utah they did indeed bus the homeless to Salt Lake City because they had the services to provide for them and the smaller cities do not. Some cities maybe abusing the system by doing this.

  2. Submitted by David Moseman on 10/09/2018 - 10:58 am.

    This is a good reminder. I think we could also use some suggestions as to how we might get involved. Do you have any links to shelters and so forth?

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/09/2018 - 01:10 pm.

    I have a family member, who suffers with schizophrenia, who lived outside, in a tent, for 8 years. He has a very large family, all of whom wanted to help; we just didn’t know where he was.

    He was attacked and critically injured, which was a blessing in disguise because the Sheriff’s department called me, and he was reunited with his family. He now lives in an assisted care home which we all pitch in to fund; that’s our duty as a family.

    So, I know many of the homeless are out there because they are mentally ill, and man, I feel really bad for them. Hope their folks find them and come get them.

    But there are just as many out there because it’s where they want to be; there is no helping them, or because they are not willing to put in the effort to get themselves straightened out; no helping them either. All we can do is make sure they don’t become a public health hazard.

    As I understand it, most of the people camped out along Hiawatha Avenue are members of Indian tribes. A tribe is your family; why are the tribes not helping them?

    If everyone took care of their own, we’d have a lot less problems, IMO.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 10/09/2018 - 02:14 pm.

      They’re fellow human beings. They deserve respect, empathy and assistance from all of us, not just “their own.”

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/09/2018 - 03:04 pm.


        But speaking for my family and myself, we don’t really need or want anyone’s empathy, don’t want or trust anyone else’s assistance and truthfully, don’t put much weight in anyone else’s respect. We’ll worry about my own; you all do the same and 90% of the problem is solved.

        • Submitted by ian wade on 10/09/2018 - 03:44 pm.

          Yeah, we get it. Conservatives signed no social contract. The rest of us however, still care about our fellow citizens.

        • Submitted by Tom Clark on 10/10/2018 - 09:13 am.

          The story about Cain not being Abel’s keeper isn’t strictly about keeping ones’ own kin, or sheep. Part of living in a civil society is living and dealing with those who aren’t your family or friends, and that includes those who are homeless and destitute. There are at most several hundred people currently living in tents around the Twin Cities, which is nowhere near 10% of the population, so the problem isn’t that helping them is a huge burden financially. It’s more the perception that any help is wasted on those who are addicted or otherwise unable to help themselves. For some, that’s true but most can be helped to overcome their problems.

          • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/10/2018 - 09:56 am.

            Tom, most have been offered help for the addictions at some point. Some take advantage of the help, but most either didn’t follow through, or outright refused to accept it.

            I agree, we should make food available, but beyond that there isn’t much we can do. The right to spin your life out of control is one the unintended consequences of a free society. There will *always* be people out on the street. There isn’t enough gold on the planet to fix something people don’t want fixed.

            • Submitted by Tom Clark on 10/10/2018 - 11:19 am.

              Out of several hundred people there will always be a few who can’t or won’t be helped. There are many more that can be though. Here’s one example that was in the news last week in Minnesota (copy link and paste):


            • Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 10/14/2018 - 07:09 pm.

              Curtis, helping your family member get into a safer environment shows you are a good person; it doesn’t make you an expert on varieties of experiences with homelessness.

              Sure, addiction is part of the package for a number of homeless individuals, just as it is with lawyers, car dealers, professional athletes and business executives. Not every family is in a position to pitch in the way you did, and sometimes, the family is the problem.

              Sometimes addiction is a cause. Other times it’s a consequence of terrible living conditions. But in many cases, it is not the primary factor.

              Homelessness is a much more complicated problem than it appears on the surface. As with climate change, we can call it inevitable and go about our own business. Or we can do our best to alleviate it.

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