The volunteers and outreach workers arrived at the St. Paul homeless camp about 9 a.m. Thursday, handing out doughnuts and hot coffee and offering to help pack up. Starting an hour later, the campers knew, they would have to leave their tent city at the base of Cathedral Hill.
No longer could they fold up their tents, leave and come back once the authorities had gone away. This time, the state, county and city meant to evict them for good.
Though much smaller than the south Minneapolis homeless encampment, the St. Paul outpost offered the same challenges. Throughout the summer and fall, officials had repeatedly moved through to clean away refuse and check on the health and safety of the people living there.
As recently as last month, St. Paul and Ramsey County officials had said they had no plans to relocate the encampment. But in the last few days, officials, saying they were worried about people’s safety as winter arrives, distributed fliers advising of Thursday’s eviction.
A camp that had grown to 30 or more tents clustered along a paved trail near Interstate 35E began to shrink. By Thursday morning, the camp was down to 15 to 18 tents.
Shadia Dier, a South Sudan native who came to St. Paul from South Dakota two months ago with her husband, had no idea where they would go once they took down their blue tent.
“I want for us to have a home,” she said, adding that she feels unsafe in shelters. “We’re not at a place where we want to be. We need some help to get there.”
By noon, as police moved up and down the site offering to help transport campers’ gear to storage and give those who wanted a ride a lift somewhere else, only a handful of campers remained.
Ricardo Cervantes, director of the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, said that the goal is to get everyone in the camp into shelters, if they want to. Ramsey County had increased capacity by 14 beds at its winter shelter space in the lower level of its human services building on Kellogg Boulevard. It now can house 64 people, including anyone who was left at the camp, he said. That is, if they wanted to stay there.
But Brian Lucio and his fiancé, Kathy Summer, didn’t. As a police van rolled down the sidewalk nearby, Lucio, 53, said they are on their way to the much larger encampment along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues in Minneapolis. Volunteers said they transported at least 15 of the St. Paul campers to the Minneapolis tent city.
Lucio said he’s been waiting for permanent housing since 2017 and has been camping on this spot in St. Paul since February. “It hasn’t been bad,” he said. “I got heat. I got my girl.”
The two cities have taken different approaches to what has become a monthslong dilemma of what to do with growing homeless tent camps.
The Minneapolis City Council last month approved $1.5 million to relocate the tent camp near Hiawatha Avenue that has become home to about 200 men, women and children since the summer. A temporary shelter, planned for a nearby Red Lake Nation-owned site, is scheduled to open in early December.
St. Paul officials were acting to close their smaller camp city now, Cervantes said, because “this is not a safe location.” The need to use fires and heaters for warmth, which have resulted in a case of carbon monoxide poisoning, prompted officials to conclude the tent camp couldn’t remain. Also, he said, some residents of the camp had thrown objects over the fence onto I-35E.
Christine Michels, senior program manager with Catholic Charities, lingered throughout the day, helping people plan their next move. She told Dier and her husband, Emmanuel Morgan, that she could connect them to the services that will help them find permanent housing.
The couple left their four children behind with their grandmother in South Dakota as they try to forge a better life here. Morgan starts a new job at Burger King this weekend.
“Crazy people at the shelter make my wife anxious, so it’s not an option,” he said. “We were hoping for just one more month, just so we could get a little place to live.”
Sally Mundt had come to help. The Mahtomedi resident had been bringing food and clothing for the past week. Now, as she watched people gather their meager possessions and leave, tears welled in her eyes.
“These are broken people,” she said. “They’ve been rejected their entire lives. They just don’t have another way.”
By 4 p.m., as the Cathedral bells tolled, the site was deserted. Two police SUVs were parked near the trail, but all remnants of the encampment — empty water bottles, discarded clothing, scraps of paper — were gone.
James Walsh 612 673-7428