St. Paul joined with Ramsey County this winter to create an emergency homeless shelter downtown to keep people from sleeping in skyways or on light-rail trains. The shelter will close in two weeks, and now, city leaders started to look for more permanent solutions to rising homelessness across the county.
A City Council discussion Wednesday began a process that will end in May with a specific strategy to reduce homelessness.
“All of us are seeing this issue in our own wards,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown and worked to launch the emergency shelter. “It’s something that’s really visible, it’s really alarming, and it affects our ability to meet our full potential as a city if we don’t have enough room for people at all income levels.”
An annual count of how many people are homeless on one night in Ramsey County — where St. Paul accounts for most of the population — found 1,963 people on Jan. 26, 2017. That group included veterans, victims of domestic violence, people with severe mental illness and people with HIV or AIDS. Most were people of color, and more than 600 were younger than 18.
Council members have identified homelessness and the need for more housing as issues they want to address in tandem, and affordable housing came up repeatedly Wednesday. Data from the Minnesota Housing Partnership show more than 65,000 Ramsey County households were cost-burdened in 2017, meaning more than 30 percent of their income went toward housing.
“Housing instability happens first, and then you’re one paycheck or one furnace going out or one bad night or one sick kid away from homelessness,” said Ryan O’Connor, deputy county manager for Ramsey County’s Health and Wellness Service Team. “At the end of the day, we are talking about our friends and neighbors.”
O’Connor suggested the city work with the county to focus on specific areas or populations facing housing instability. That way, he said, they can prioritize proposals from developers — affordable housing for veterans, for instance, or for families.
In December, then-Mayor Chris Coleman and Council Member (and now Council President) Amy Brendmoen directed the city’s Fair Housing Workgroup to develop a strategic plan. The work group is scheduled to report back to the council March 28.
The city already has tools at its disposal, through the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, to preserve and build affordable housing. Tracy Berglund, senior director of housing stability at Catholic Charities, said Wednesday that city leaders can also advocate for state housing infrastructure bonds and increased rental subsidies.
Meanwhile, the need for emergency shelter isn’t going away, Berglund said.
“While we need to take the time to build that housing, that’s a Band-Aid that we need to maintain,” she said.