With winter approaching, St. Paul and Ramsey County officials say they have no plans to relocate a homeless encampment of roughly 30 men and women who have been living since spring in tents near downtown, just above Interstate Hwy. 35E.
Instead, health officials are focusing on keeping the grounds clean and making regular sweeps with police and service providers.
“For now we just want to make sure the encampment is as safe and healthy as it can possibly be,” said Anne Barry, Ramsey County’s health director.
In the meantime, city and county officials said they plan to open an emergency shelter Nov. 1 in the lower level of the Ramsey County Government Center’s east building, 160 Kellogg Blvd. It will offer space for up to 64 people a night and stay open through the end of April.
The homeless camp in St. Paul, scattered along a sidewalk and a wooded hill leading down from the Cathedral of St. Paul, grew organically around the same time as the much larger encampment of hundreds of homeless men and women about 20 miles west, along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis.
The St. Paul encampment is less than a third of the size of the Minneapolis one, and unlike Minneapolis it has no families or children, no billboards or makeshift structures. While the two encampments are said to be bigger and more visible than previous sites, they’re hardly new, said Brian Molohon, a vice president at Union Gospel Mission.
“Dozens pop up every year throughout the inner cities as well as in the suburbs,” Molohon said. “You can find half a dozen to a dozen tents in the woods off White Bear Avenue, in Oakdale, in Mounds Park, in Lowertown behind some abandoned buildings, in Swede Hollow. Even out in Wayzata, we’re seeing what almost feels like rural encampments.”
When a small group is cleared out of a lot or the woods, it typically will go to a new spot or two before circling back only to be kicked out again, Molohon said.
The size of the St. Paul encampment raises a number of health risks, Barry said. The city and county have been making sweeps of the camp about once a week for several months — moving the tents aside, spraying the area down, emptying garbage cans and cleaning up rubbish.
“We have to make sure things are being washed down and that we’re throwing out anything that attracts bugs or animals,” she said. “The longer you leave things in place, the more quickly a site deteriorates.”
‘The need is bursting’
The demand for shelter space has increased in the last four years, said Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which operates some of the largest shelters and low-income housing centers in the Twin Cities.
Catholic Charities opened up 320 emergency shelter beds at the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul in January 2017, not far from the homeless camp. The beds were filled immediately and the shelter is at capacity, Marx said.
“The long-term answer is housing,” he said. “We need more affordable housing at all income levels.”
In the short term, he said, the encampments are evidence that the area also needs more temporary shelters.
“What we’re seeing is that the need is bursting out,” Marx said. “We have to recognize that it’s not a good thing for the safety or health of individuals or the community to have people living in these encampments.”
Ernie McGuire, 58, has been living out of a small blue tent at the St. Paul camp for eight months. He said he has been mostly on the streets for the past eight years, since his wife died. He walks with a cane and a limp.
McGuire met a caseworker while officials with the county and some nonprofits were walking through the camp about two months ago. Working with the caseworker, he secured a room at Catholic Charities’ Mary Hall starting in November.
The camp, he said, is “fine during the summer but it is hard during the winter.”
Once people found out the camp was there, they’ve been offering help, McGuire said.
“It’s almost every day now that someone comes by with hats and jackets and tarps or food and water,” he said. “There are a lot of beautiful people in St. Paul.”
David Peterson, 58, grew up on St. Paul’s East Side and has been homeless for two years. He said he’d like to find housing before winter, but is ready to ride it out in camp if he can’t. He said he prefers tents to being in a shelter.
“If you have survival skills, you’ll survive,” he said. “You learn fast.”