When Monica Nilsson signed on to direct a street outreach program for the homeless, she didn't see herself in the import-export business. But with shelters in the Twin Cities overflowing, Nilsson suddenly finds herself negotiating to buy 200 sleeping bags and tents directly from a Chinese manufacturer.

"We're trying to figure out how we're going to pay for them," Nilsson said.

The process is encumbered by import laws, but the price seems unbeatable -- $11.80 per sleeping bag and $14.20 per tent. Nilsson said that's roughly a third of what St. Stephen's Human Services Street Outreach would pay in the Twin Cities.

"The bags are good down to zero degrees," Nilsson said. Toss in a tent to knock down wind and keep out snow and rain and people may be able to "create little nests and burrow into them."

St. Stephen's is trying to get a sample sleeping bag and tent sent from China as soon as possible. If both live up to expectations, Nilsson plans to place an order. If not, she and her staff will be back to clamoring for clearances on the websites of sporting goods retailers and department stores.

Nilsson's plan to import sleeping bags and tents in bulk is likely unprecedented, said Cathy ten Broeke, who directs the Hennepin County and Minneapolis Office to End Homelessness. "Certainly, there isn't enough [shelter] space," said Ten Broeke, who believes Minnesotans must develop the "political will" to provide more permanent housing options for the homeless.

"It's Monica's job to make sure people are safe. I find the whole situation really painful. I find it disheartening. People should not be sleeping outside in Minnesota in winter."

They do.

Jim, an unemployed construction worker who says he has a college degree, didn't want his last name printed. He has been homeless off and on for the past two years. Between jobs, he passes out résumés and panhandles. He spent one night in a downtown Minneapolis shelter in 2007. As he left the shelter, he said, several other homeless men attacked him.

"They hit me in the mouth with a crowbar and tried to steal my backpack," Jim said, pulling back his lip to reveal that he lost all of his upper teeth in the attack. "I got 29 stitches."

The assault convinced Jim never to return to a shelter. These days, he sleeps in an unheated garage, wearing a ski mask and six layers of clothes while lying under a mound of blankets two feet high. He would welcome a sleeping bag rated for zero degrees. All Nilsson had to give him on a recent day was a bag rated for 20 degrees.

"It isn't much fun at 15 below," he said.

The situation is desperate

Officials estimate that 300 to 500 people remain "unsheltered" each night in Hennepin County.

In addition to people such as Jim, who fear violence at shelters, St. Stephen's part of the safety net involves a hard core of mentally ill, alcoholic and/or substance-abusing people, as well as young street people ages 16 to 21. Nilsson said Hennepin only has 48 beds designated for "unaccompanied youth," when roughly twice that number need a place to stay each night.

The situation for adults is almost as desperate. Some drink themselves into a stupor outside detox facilities to get a bed for the night, Nilsson said. Others shoplift openly, hoping to get taken to jail.

Around midnight on a recent evening, operations director Dominick Bouza stood in the "Safe Bay" room of the Salvation Army's Harbor Light shelter. Amid the stench of body odor, homeless men rested on nearly all of the 130 sleeping mats crammed into the room. Bouza knew late arrivals would soon occupy the remaining mats. So in a chapel down the hall, a worker removed seats and pulled out more sleeping pads on the chapel's heated floor. Those mats would fill up, too, Bouza predicted, leaving people to sleep in the shelter's lit hallways.

'As bad as I've seen it'

Nilsson said requests to local churches for more shelter space have been generally unsuccessful. Hennepin's Ten Broeke said the county may soon open the McGee building near City Hall as a "winter only" homeless shelter.

"It's as bad as I've seen it," Bouza said of shelter overcrowding. "The real relief is to hire workers to get residents into housing."

Or, in the short term, perhaps to pass out sleeping bags and tents.

The Chinese sleeping bag and tent company came up in an Internet search that matched the lowest unit price with a certain quality of sleeping bag, Nilsson said.

"I'm not thrilled not to be buying American," she added. "But what choice do I have? We're passing out 40 sleeping bags a month, conservatively. Our goal is not to set people up comfortably outside. We're trying to help them survive."

Life and death

Sleeping bags and tents could be the difference between life and death -- or at least a way to avoid painful, expensive trips to the emergency room for frostbite or hypothermia.

"You can say these people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but they don't have any boots right now," Nilsson explained. "I have to be pragmatic."

In addition to the chronically homeless, the recession has swelled the ranks of those needing a place to sleep, said Stephen Horsfield, Harbor Light's chief operating officer. Even slumlords have been foreclosed out of apartment buildings, Horsfield said, casting people on to the streets. In the dead of winter last year, the Salvation Army saw about 30 people looking for a place to sleep after its shelter was full. This year, "we hit that number in October, when temperatures were still in the 50s," Horsfield said.

Immediate need, slow process

The Office to End Homelessness hopes to raise money from the faith and business communities to hire 10 counselors who will try to place 150 homeless people into housing. But that process will take six months. The shelter crisis exists now.

So samples of a Chinese-made sleeping bag and tent will soon be on the way.

"We'll pay to fly those in," Nilsson said. If they look like they will work, "the rest of it comes on a slow boat from China to Los Angeles, then a slow train to Minneapolis."

Jim Spencer • 612-673-4029