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International travel provides a new perspective on Minneapolis’ homeless population

St. Petersburg, Russia
Photo by Puja Lin on Unsplash
St. Petersburg, Russia

My daily commute in the summer includes biking Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway. Seeing homeless individuals camped along its edges is not new to me. But traveling in Oslo, Norway, and in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia, for a month this summer gave me a new perspective on the situation. On my first commute to work after my trip, I encountered more homeless individuals in one day than I did in my entire month abroad.

Ann Minnick
Ann Minnick
Why? Had there been an unusual spike in the Minneapolis homeless population while I was away? Perhaps, but the numbers have always been high. Could I have simply managed to avoid the homeless sections of the cities I visited while abroad? Doubtful. My husband and I visited central and suburban areas via public transit, stayed in hostels, regularly interacted with locals and experienced the normal rhythms of urban neighborhood life. In short, we weren’t in a tourist bubble.

I suspect the real reason for the disparity in homeless numbers has to do with how U.S. cities manage individuals who are housing insecure. We apparently lack the political will, the resources, the imagination, or some combination thereof, to address the problem. I am not an expert on cities or homelessness, in the U.S. or abroad. But I know what I saw: virtually no homeless individuals in a month of travel.

We seem to have the political will, the resources and the imagination to do all sorts of things in Minneapolis (build major sports complexes, host events that draw thousands of visitors, sustain a vibrant arts community), but we don’t seem to be able to care for and adequately house vulnerable members of our community (the approach to the Native American encampment on Franklin Avenue/Hiawatha this past year seems a notable exception).


Former Mayor R.T. Rybak’s rallying cry was “make Minneapolis a world-class city.” I can’t imagine what world travelers who visit our city and bike down the Greenway, or along many other urban routes, would think when they see our homeless situation. I assume they would be as shocked and dismayed at what they find as I was awed and inspired by what I saw (or didn’t see) while abroad.

What impression do we want to make? What kind of a city do we want to be? I suggest we start paying more attention to the homeless in our community if we really want to be “world-class.”

Ann Minnick is a Minneapolis resident.

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Correction: A previous version of this commentary misspelled former Mayor R.T. Rybak’s name.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/19/2019 - 12:18 pm.

    This is one of many examples of how other advanced countries rise to their challenges, while we offer excuses and bandaids.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 08/19/2019 - 05:22 pm.

      You also over look we have limited ability to force people in this country into treatment or supportive housing, especially in this state.

      • Submitted by Janis Froehlig on 08/20/2019 - 11:39 pm.

        You couldn’t force me into a moldy, loud, cinder block cell, either. Throw unmanaged DT’s or a sudden run on naloxone on top of that, yet we still think it’s up to “them” to choose our gracious offerings. Hm.

  2. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 08/19/2019 - 03:29 pm.

    I suspect that European cities probably have a better social safety net than the United States does.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/25/2019 - 02:50 pm.

      When I was in Stockholm, Sweden a few years ago, I attended services at the so-called “English Church.” In talking to people at coffee hour, I learned that Sweden’s safety net is so strong that the only homeless people are those in the late stages of alcoholism or drug addiction, and the Salvation Army takes care of those.

      For that reason, people in that church go to the former Soviet Union, where the end of Communism also meant the end of even the flimsy social safety net that existed there, to do their charitable work.

  3. Submitted by Frederick Hippchen on 08/20/2019 - 09:15 am.

    The USA has never treated its citizens well as other countries after WWII. Biggest myth in the world is liveability in the US. Come here, join in the money grab, build equity here, transfer it overseas, and retire. In other words . . . grab the money here and RUN.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 08/20/2019 - 11:38 am.

      Frederick, I guess that is why folks are lining up to enter America, so they can leave? Please show me a study where folks come here from other countries, make their fortune and leave the USA. Homelessness in America has never been about money or affordable housing, it has and will stay about drug addiction and mental illness.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/23/2019 - 11:18 am.

        It amazes me that this “lining up to get in” garbage still shows up. As if the US is the ONLY country in the world that people emigrate to, as if THAT makes us oh so special.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/25/2019 - 02:59 pm.

          Yes, the only people who are actually “lining up” to get to America are people from desperately poor and/or violence-ridden and/or politically repressive countries.

          If you meet a Western European immigrant here, it’s almost always someone who married an American or came to take a specific job or came from a country that was poor in the past but no longer is, not someone who felt unable to have a decent life back home in 2019.

          Anyway, every industrialized Western country now has immigrants. I suggest trying to tell a Western European that his or her native country can have a strong social safety net because it doesn’t have immigrants. You will be treated to the sight of said European laughing hysterically.

          Anyone who thinks that only the U.S. is an immigrant magnet really needs to get out more. I just returned from an extended trip to the U.K. and Ireland, and both are countries with diverse populations.

          Even Iceland has immigrants. Even Japan has immigrants. I saw Indians running businesses in South Korea, which boggled my mind, because South Korea is a very homogeneous country and not hospitable to foreigners.

          So enough with the “everybody wants to come here” nonsense.

      • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 08/24/2019 - 02:24 pm.

        Joe, how many people from Trump’s favored nations (those in Scandihoovia) are lining up to immigrate into the United States?

  4. Submitted by Bill Davnie on 08/20/2019 - 03:11 pm.

    It’s not just European social democracies that do better. I’ve recently returned from seven months in Sri Lanka, a much poorer country than Norway or Russia, yet saw very few homeless there and far fewer panhandlers/beggars than here. Social safety net is part of this, but social expectations and solidarity are different as well.

  5. Submitted by Ben Irwin on 08/20/2019 - 03:33 pm.

    I have traveled to over 30 countries and must disagree with the author.
    Homeless and displaced persons exist in all 30. Russia, France, Croatia, Chile, Australia, to name a few.

    • Submitted by Linda Rolf on 08/25/2019 - 02:53 am.

      The US is the richest country in the world so why do we treat the poor like trash? Because we can as long as the government keeps peddling the “Me First” policy. As in, “I don’t want to pay my fair share of taxes because an undeserving welfare queen might get a dollar or two of it.” Oh, one entity that is legally taking the money and running to offshore banks and tax havens is US corporations. Apple and many other corporations paid zero taxes last year. Trump has apparently not paid income tax for years but then he is of the 1%.

  6. Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/23/2019 - 11:15 am.

    Do these other countries have fewer homeless people? Do they manage housing insecurity better?

    Maybe, but there was absolutely nothing in this article to demonstrate those things one way or another. Despite the insistence that the author’s summer vacation was not spent in a “tourist bubble”, this is nothing more than anecdotal observations. Its completely meaningless. I actually find it distressing that someone thinks they can spend a couple of days walking around a city and consider their observations meaningful analysis and reach these kind of conclusions.

    Also, the former mayor’s name is spelled Rybak, not Ryback.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/24/2019 - 09:19 am.

      Ms. Minnick is making a completely reliable and valid observation, though it may be anecdotal. You can find “data” do support her observation if you want to, governments do track homeless and poverty rates. You can spend two hours in San Francisco as a tourist and realize that, same with Boston, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, San Diego, and DC. Right now there’s a guy living out of a suitcase over at Lake of the Isles, I’ve seen him all week on my bike rides.

      One could say that if homelessness IS visible even to tourists obviously a bigger problem in one place than another.

      We have economic refugee camps all over the US the likes of which no one sees in Western Europe. This is one of the frustrating things about our “discussions” about affordable housing, we tend to frame the discussion in terms who making or not making money building, selling, or renting rather whether or not people have places to live. Profit isn’t the problem here.

      Just take a look at this video of the refugee camp in LA- THIS is the United States, 5,000 – 8,000 people living in refugee camp in an American city. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbTSDuQET94

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/26/2019 - 12:09 pm.

        I expect that the US does have a bigger homeless problem because we don’t have the same safety net most European countries do. Her conclusion may be correct, but her methodology is worthless.

        I’ve been to Europe and seen tons of homeless people, which I don’t see on a day-to-day basis in the cities. I would never draw the kind of broad conclusions that she does because my experience, here and abroad, is selective. Her anecdotal observations are just as completely invalid as mine.

        I’m not sure why you put data in quotes, because the data on homelessness is a valid measure of the homeless problem. I don’t know if its a problem with the educational system, but this country has a real problem with giving (often meaningless) anecdotal information more weight than actual data. It seems to be a symptom of the anti-science and anti-intellectual beliefs promoted by the right.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/23/2019 - 11:22 am.

    The US has higher poverty and homeless rates than most of Social Democratic countries in Europe, that’s simply a fact. None of our peers have economic refugee camps like the ones in LA and Northern California.

    This crises has been ongoing for decades. Back the mid 80’s MPLS homeless shelter were already reporting that they were turning 600-800 people away every night- and that was in the winter.

    The difference is that many of the European countries see secure housing and health care as a human right, while we see it as a perk for those tread water successfully in our economy.

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