De Andre Hudson got the bad news on a recent weekday evening when he called the homeless hot line at Simpson United Methodist Church, asking if the city had an open shelter bed.
No luck. Every adult shelter bed in Minneapolis was filled, an advocate who was taking phone calls, told him. It meant another night spent riding the light rail back and forth between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Forty others like Hudson would also be denied.
“It’s been like this for three months,” said Hudson, 45, a bag of clothes beside him. “I don’t like living on the street.”
A $400,000 federal grant offered to the city could provide temporary shelter for Hudson and dozens like him, and it’s at the heart of a debate among officials and advocates on how the city of Minneapolis spends money it receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
HUD does not dictate how the grant should be spent, but a long-standing City Council policy dictates that money from the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) can be used only for capital expenses, such as upgrading buildings or equipment and street outreach. Advocates want the money used for daily operating expenses that would allow for more staffing and beds, which is prohibited by the City Council policy.
Monica Nilsson, a shelter advocate and former homeless outreach manager for St. Stephen’s Human Services, says the city should allow more flexibility in how the money is spent.
“What’s more important than having a safe place to sleep?” she asks.
Minneapolis gets an annual allocation from HUD for shelter programs, said David Frank, interim director of the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) department. He said there are three priorities: facilities upgrades, street outreach and rapid rehousing.
Advocates say they would like the money to be spent on expanding and staffing shelters. If money is spent on making more room, they’ll need more people to run those facilities, the advocates argue.
Council Member Cam Gordon said he favors an amendment to the policy that would allow federal funding to be spent on day-to-day services.
“I think there is a critical need for more spaces,” he said.
But Council President Barb Johnson said she is reluctant to have the city start paying for staffing, and that the city’s contribution toward maintaining shelters is sufficient.
“The lines are fairly well drawn,” she said. “We are being inundated by requests to respond to every social ill.”
Paying operating expenses for sheltering the homeless in Minneapolis is a Hennepin County function, although County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the debate over the City Council’s position has festered for years. He thinks the city priority on capital expenses is wrong.
“This division of labor where they do only capital expenses and we do operating expenses is so out of date it is laughable,” he said.
Gail Dorfman, executive director of St. Stephen’s Human Services, said that for an estimated $345,000, a new shelter could provide beds and staffing for 20 people for a year, although she’s “not sure you’d want to open a shelter without having at least some assurance that you’d have funding for operations for more than one year.” A shelter for 50 could cost about $565,000 for a year, she said.
Dorfman said that, while money for outreach work and upgrades is valuable, “we like flexible funding whenever we can get it.”
Deborah Loon, executive director of Avenues for Homeless Youth, agreed.
“Our position is that it makes sense for the city to have a more flexible policy,” she said. “It would allow the city to use the ESG funds to help meet the highest-identified needs each year.”
Lisa Goodman, chair of the City Council community development committee, said the city is doing its fair share.
“We are the only source for funding to maintain the … interior and exterior of these buildings,” she said. “Just because the county won’t put more money into shelters, doesn’t mean the city should change its policy to accommodate that need. We build housing. We fund rapid re-entry. We don’t do shelter operations. That’s not our job.”
Other council members, such as Elizabeth Glidden and Linea Palmisano, said they would consider the idea of an amendment. Others said they didn’t know enough about the issue or didn’t respond to requests for comment.
As winter approaches and temperatures drop, 599 free beds will be available for single adults starting Nov. 1, down from 649 last winter, said David Hewitt, director of the city-county office to end homelessness. But there will also be 180 beds for people with disabilities that were underused last winter.
Nilsson said the city policy could be in the cross hairs next spring when federal funding will again be made available.
The shelter at First Covenant Church will stay open rather than close next May, as it has in the past, making 50 more beds available.
Working from a cramped office at a homeless shelter at Simpson United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, advocates Shanea Turner-Smith and Billy Wright manned the phones one evening as homeless people called Adult Shelter Connect, hoping for a bed at one of the city’s five shelters for single adults.
The advocates found beds for 23 people, but more than three dozen were turned away, a pretty typical night, advocates said.
“There are a lot of shelters that fill up by 10 a.m.,” Turner-Smith said.
Among the rejected was Tocha Brown, 46, who just finished her shift at a Robbinsdale nursing home only to be told there were no beds.
“I’ll just walk the streets,” she said. “ I have nowhere to go.”
Abby Driver, 22, also turned away, sat on the floor of the transit station at the Mall of America in Bloomington at midnight.
“There were no beds for females,” she said. “There’s no one I can stay with, so I just ride the train.”