I’ve worked in the field of homelessness long enough to actually know people who used to ride trains and get referred to as hobos. They used the train for transportation and for shelter overnight in their travels.
The latest HUD point-in-time count of people without shelter on one night in January was recently released. We learned that in Hennepin County alone, 603 people were found sleeping outside, in stairwells, cars or trains. This represents a 14% increase from last year.
This month, Metropolitan Council General Manager Wes Kooistra presented a proposal to our new council to close the Green Line light-rail trains between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. each weekday to service the trains and the tracks. Kooistra noted that the Met Council recognizes this will displace up to 300 homeless youths, seniors and other women and men who have nowhere to go, as shelters across the metro area are full or are closing. He expects to make a decision by May 31.
Spring is here. Dakota County has closed its winter shelter for men, women and older teens. Soon St. Paul will close its winter shelter. In May, the Minneapolis Navigation Center shelter that housed inhabitants of the Hiawatha encampment will close, as will another 50 winter overflow beds in existing Hennepin County shelters.
As someone who has worked with people sleeping outside or in shelter for 25 years, I’m reminded of the woman I met on the train who works at Amazon. She sleeps under fluorescent lights, without access to a bathroom, and wakes every hour to deboard one train and switch to the one going in the opposite direction. She is the hobo who finds that this is her best option: being publicly exposed to predators, trading darkness and lying prone for heat, dryness and some sense of safety.
She is waiting — waiting to save enough of her income for a place to live. Even for an Amazon worker, who might now make $15 an hour, apartments renting at $850 a month are out of reach when the landlord requires that a tenant earn three times the rent.
I agree with Kooistra that light-rail trains are not shelter. While some might expect I’m writing to beg that the trains be left operating, I’m actually writing to appeal to Kooistra to announce this closure immediately. I learned that because this proposed Green Line closure represents only 1.5% of the Metro Transit system operations, there need be no public hearing and the Met Council will not vote on it. The decision needs to be made by May 31 so it can shut down by mid-August.
The reason that I ask for an immediate announcement is so that our governor and Legislature, with three weeks left in the legislative session, will understand the urgency of identifying significant resources to shelter people.
The Homes for All Coalition, the organization that embodies housing and homeless programs from rural, suburban and urban Minnesota, has submitted a request for $15 million for the emergency services program. The current budget statewide is $844,000. It is very possible there will be no increased funding this session.
Should the Met Council honor my request and announce within days that another 300 people will be outside later this summer, perhaps in the overnight hours, legislators might think of that Amazon worker riding the train past the State Capitol as they prioritize our state budget.
When someone is facing a dire circumstance, there’s no point in mincing words. Every time I and my colleagues who work in shelters have had to look a youth, a senior, a veteran, a woman or a man in the face and say, “I’m sorry, we’re full, you can’t come in,” there was no need to sugarcoat it.
I once had to turn away a couple named Mary and Joe — and I’m not kidding.
Please, Mr. Kooistra and Met Council members, announce immediately that you will be closing the Green Line overnight on weeknights. Please, Gov. Walz and legislators, stop believing that sleeping outside is adequate shelter and recognize that explaining how the hobo now works at Amazon is getting more difficult.
Monica Nilsson, of Minneapolis, is a homeless advocate.