Anoka city leaders are taking action to rein in a wave of homelessness thought to be the cause of trash-strewn campsites near downtown and pushy panhandling on Main Street, and an outgrowth of rising suburban poverty.
The city, which has Anoka County’s only homeless shelter, long has been one of the most common places in the north metro area for those down on their luck to congregate. But in December, the City Council made it illegal to camp or store personal items on public property after residents came upon unsightly homeless encampments in the woods along the Rum River.
That came on the heels of recent city measures to stem “aggressive panhandling,” barring people from asking others for money in most parts of Anoka, and a temporary moratorium on beds earmarked for the homeless that wound up blocking expansion of an apartment complex for homeless youth.
The city spent up to $20,000 to clear out cardboard boxes, sleeping bags, empty bottles and rubbish just off walking trails along the Rum. “It’s kind of a new phenomenon for our city. We haven’t had that experience until just recently,” said Council Member Mark Freeburg, speaking before the most recent action.
Some say that Anoka could be on the front edge of suburban cities faced with an influx of homeless people. Poor people in the metro suburbs outnumber those in Minneapolis and St. Paul by 2 to 1, according to a 2015 Metropolitan Council report.
“I think the suburbs are all seeing an increase in the homeless,” said Anoka Police Chief Phil Johanson. “It’s becoming decentralized. It used to be in the central cities.”
Other factors could make Anoka, a city of 17,300, even more of a magnet. The county courthouse is there, and it’s the only city in the county with service centers for homeless people. There’s regular bus and commuter train service to Minneapolis. The ample parks and wooded public land are perfect for clandestine camping, and the downtown area — a rarity in the suburbs — is an easy place to loiter.
“We had a huge influx of homeless last year. It showed up at the cash register,” said Sam Lessin, who said that homeless people sometimes hassle and intimidate customers at his Main Street home decor store, The Corner. “A lot of people flocked here from other parts.”
Brian Swanson, who chairs Hope 4 Youth — the youth drop-in center that the city blocked from expansion — said he agrees that other cities in Anoka County need to share the responsibility of dealing with homelessness. Hope 4 Youth now has plans to open transitional youth apartments in neighboring Coon Rapids.
“Anoka has a delicate balance to figure out,” Swanson said. “The city government is struggling with balancing their desire to take care of people, the concentration of the services in the city and a healthy business climate … I don’t envy them. They haven’t always handled it perfectly. Neither have we, as a service provider.”
At least, he said, Anoka is “upfront and clear about expectations.”
For many municipal leaders, containing homelessness is about maintaining a sense of safety — a basic expectation of suburbanites. It was that concern that prompted Anoka’s stricter homelessness regulations, city leaders said.
“It’s not right for our residents to have to stumble across one of these [homeless camps] and be scared to death of what’s going to happen,” said Anoka City Council Member Jeff Weaver during a council meeting.
Johanson said he’s seen an increased number of calls to police about homeless encampments and panhandling. Officers’ primary goal is not to arrest or cite people, he said, but to steer homeless people toward available services.
“Five years ago, we didn’t have any of that. Now we get quite a few calls. It’s the public calling us. Somebody is sleeping on a piece of cardboard with food packages and trash next to them,” Johanson said.
Still, the get-tough measures evoke conflicting feelings for many in town: compassion for those struggling, and fear that some who loiter bring with them drugs and untreated mental illness.
According to Mayor Phil Rice, the city of Anoka has shouldered nearly all the responsibility for the county’s homeless, allowing Stepping Stone Emergency Housing, a 60-bed homeless shelter, and Hope 4 Youth drop-in center. Officials with Stepping Stone haven’t commented on the new city ordinances.
Rice believes it’s time for others in the county of 340,000 to step up. “We do so much more than our share,” he said last year.
Kenza Hadj-Moussa, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said the nonprofit urges communities to focus on solutions and services rather than penalizing homeless people. “There is definitely a tension for both neighborhoods and the resources available,” she said.
But she added that many suburbs have become wise to the issue and more amenable to providing services. “It seems like suburban communities have become more open. There is more public awareness,” she said.
Some business owners describe a more aggressive edge to panhandling that has affected downtown Anoka’s shops and culture.
Lessin said that he often digs into his pocket and pulls out a couple of bucks when he’s approached by a homeless person, but that recently the response often has been, “Can you double that?” He said he once offered to buy lunch for a homeless man at a local eatery but was told, “That place is disgusting. Can we go somewhere else?”
Lessin said dozens of customers at his store, mostly women, complained last year that panhandlers made them feel unsafe. He said he supports the police department’s increased foot patrols downtown and the new ordinances that give officers the tools to deal with the problem.
“I had a meth-addled person in here who shook me to my core,” Lessin said. “We saw it bottom out last year. We have noticed immediate improvements.”
Anoka City Manager Gary Lee said that the city is not turning its back on the problem. Officials have worked with homeless nonprofits to make sure that career counseling and other skills programs are paired with material assistance. The city is partnering with a nonprofit and the county on another project to address homelessness, turning buildings on the old Anoka State Hospital campus into veterans’ housing.
“The city of Anoka is very compassionate,” Lee said. “But we can’t allow things to happen that will destroy the city.”