After Ramsey County officials declined to continue offering the Union Depot as an emergency homeless shelter Friday, Sheriff Bob Fletcher made an unprecedented move: He invited vulnerable adults to camp out overnight in the law enforcement center's lobby.
As temperatures plummeted toward 15 below zero Friday night, deputies prepared for an influx of several dozen people at the St. Paul headquarters.
"Some have called it a Band-Aid," said the sheriff's spokesman Roy Magnuson. "But we're not apologizing for stepping up and trying to apply a Band-Aid in these particularly unseasonable nights."
Last week, in the midst of a bone-chilling polar vortex, the county-owned Union Depot was transformed to help house around 100 homeless adults over three nights who were unable to find empty beds at the city's overwhelmed shelters.
The 64-bed "Winter Safe Space," which also connects guests with resources to address mental health and chemical dependency issues, was at capacity those days. As a backup plan, authorities opened the Union Depot to the homeless for the first time.
"It was an emergency option for that period of time," said county spokesman John Siqveland.
But officials later determined that "we cannot create the expectation that Union Depot — with its combination of public and private uses — can serve as a suitable solution for overnight emergency sheltering," he said.
At Tuesday's County Board meeting, commissioners praised community partners for stepping up to care for those less fortunate. However, they agreed that the Depot was not a suitable long-term solution for addressing homelessness.
At the meeting, County Manager Ryan O'Connor advocated for exploring alternative facilities for temporary housing, because the Depot presented some challenges.
"It's not a homeless shelter," he said. "It's not a humane way to become a homeless shelter."
Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, who visited the Depot accommodations one night, noted at that meeting that it provided shelter for many of the same folks who ride light-rail trains most nights to stay warm. The other difference she could see was that they had access to bathrooms.
But she later surmised that opening the Depot could, in some cases, "cause more harm, because we threw them out of their routine, which they rely on for the little bit of security they have."
Magnuson said MatasCastillo's comments were off-putting. Those routines often included fighting the risk of exposure every time the train kicked off passengers at the end of its route, he said.
Meanwhile, the Depot offered a large amount of space, access to restrooms and the possibility of uninterrupted sleep — a luxury transit riders rarely have, he said. Its location as the last stop on the Green Line also made it convenient for those seeking shelter.
On Friday, when the windchill was predicted at 35 below zero, the homeless were permitted to stay inside the Depot until it closed at midnight. After that, deputies stationed nearby took them to Catholic Charities' Higher Ground and other shelters that raised occupancy capacities after Mayor Melvin Carter issued temporary variances.
Those remaining would be taken to the law enforcement center and given blankets for an overnight stay. Magnuson was unsure of just how many that would be, but said his offices planned to accommodate more than 50.
County Board Chair Jim McDonough echoed warnings this week that the problem would persist long past the cold-weather season.
"The fact is, there is no easy fix. And we need to stop looking for that," McDonough said. "It's gonna continue to get worse — unless we're addressing the affordable housing component."