In the shadows of a concrete underpass, Jesse Wendt and Nancy Wolf peered out from under a pile of blankets at the first gleam of a December dawn obscured by whirling snow.
It was 14 degrees without the windchill, and the couple was about to launch into their elaborate morning ritual. First, they would survey the surrounding pavement to see if any of their belongings had been stolen overnight. Then, amid the din of rush-hour traffic, they would meticulously load a portable oven, eight blankets, a thin shag carpet, bags of clothing and a thick stick for protection into two shopping carts.
By 9 a.m., the couple and their mini-caravan had set off down a busy road in Richfield in search of a hot cup of coffee and refuge from the cold. Dozens of cars passed by, and many people slowed to gawk at the hooded figures pushing their carts. No one offered any help until an older man pulled over and handed Wendt a pair of new snow boots. "This means so much," said Wendt, 43, after the man left. "Because there are times when we feel invisible."
While they represent less than a quarter of Minnesota's homeless population, people who sleep outside in the elements and not in shelters pose a persistent challenge.
Many drift from bridge to bridge and park to park, risking frostbite and death, to avoid being seen and to stay out of harm's way. Some, like Wendt and Wolf, prefer the independence of the streets to the emergency shelter system and its bevy of rules. A combination of other factors — including escalating street violence, lack of affordable apartments and a resurgence of COVID-19 — is pushing more of the "unsheltered" to the margins of the Twin Cities metro area, where they are further cut off from support networks, say homeless outreach agencies.
But there are signs of hope for this hard-to-reach population. Across Minnesota, county agencies and nonprofits that do outreach are increasingly embracing a "housing first" strategy, in which everyone who is identified as homeless is offered a stable home without preconditions such as sobriety or employment. The strategy is based on the simple yet redefining idea that until a person's housing is taken care of, other issues such as substance abuse, mental health and work status cannot be adequately addressed.
In Hennepin County, with the state's largest homeless population at 3,000, officials are taking this model to the streets.
Over the past month, they have have begun deploying mobile teams of caseworkers — 30 in total — to parks, highway underpasses, transit stations, shelters and other spaces to assess immediate needs and remove barriers to stable housing. The outreach effort marks a significant shift: In the past, the emergency shelter system was the primary path to housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. As a result, people who avoided the shelters and primarily slept outside did not have the same access to services.
The goal of this effort, say county officials, is to help 1,000 people move into permanent housing each year — a target that, if achieved, would reduce Hennepin County's homeless population by roughly a third. Already since this spring, through more targeted outreach and better data analytics, the county has more than doubled the pace at which it is transitioning people who are chronically homeless into permanent housing.
"Before we had spreadsheets and databases of who was in [homeless] shelters, but that was it. We knew the problem but only hoped for the solution," said Mark Legler, principal planning analyst for Hennepin County's Office to End Homelessness. "Now we're really driving the solution."
Underscoring the urgency of the problem, hundreds of people marched around downtown Minneapolis on Thursday night to honor the more than 200 people who lost their lives while homeless in 2021. Clutching signs with names of the deceased, they marched in silence, drawing long stares from rush-hour commuters. Homicides, drug overdoses and cancer were the three most common causes of death among those homeless who lost their lives this year. The average age of death was just 41 — or about half the average life expectancy for Minnesotans, according to data reported to the event organizers.
"Think of the enormous impact: That's 20 to 30 years of personality, of character, of richness, of everything that we lose when these lives are taken much too soon," said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that serves people experiencing or transitioning out of homelessness.
Wendt and Wolf are all too familiar with the perils of living on the street.
Wolf, who has deep, empathic blue eyes and a slight build, keeps a can of Mace in her coat and a stick nearby to ward off potential attackers at night. People scream out their car windows at them, and one angry driver even tried to run them off the sidewalk in her SUV, the couple said. They sleep exposed to the elements because they fear that a tent would limit their visibility at night and prevent them from spotting assailants or thieves.
"We try to be out in the open because then at least there are witnesses," Wolf said. "But one day or night someone is not going to take 'no' for an answer. And then what? We are totally exposed."
Like many who live on the streets, Wendt and Wolf cannot trace their descent into homelessness to a single episode or event.
Four years ago, Wendt worked full time as a manager at a restaurant in the Mall of America and Wolf held a steady job as a certified medical assistant. When the pandemic hit, Wendt lost his job and the couple decided to strike out on their own and launch a business cleaning houses and Airbnbs in Minneapolis. But the work was too sporadic to pay the bills, and soon the couple found themselves bouncing between temporary stays in clients' garages to sleeping near railroad tracks and under bridges.
They ultimately settled on a wide stretch of pavement under a highway overpass in the south metro suburb of Richfield, because it seemed secluded and safer from the gunfire and homicides that have swept over Minneapolis.
But finding a restroom, or even a sink to wash one's face and hands, is a constant struggle. There are no public restrooms near their makeshift sleeping site, so they must navigate a network of privately maintained bathrooms at local stores and businesses. But store staff have come to recognize the pair with their shopping carts piled high with blankets, and sometimes shoot them dirty looks or angrily rap on the bathroom door to get them to leave.
Wendt said he went 19 weeks over the spring and summer without taking a single shower.
"Even a shower has begun to feel like a privilege," said Wolf, brushing back her auburn hair while warming up at a Cub Foods supermarket. "You get tired of always feeling dirty."
At times, passing motorists mistakenly assume the couple is injured — or even dead — and call for emergency assistance. On a recent morning, while lying peacefully on the pavement, the couple woke to the bright lights of a fire engine and the sight of paramedics rushing toward them with oxygen masks. "If people stopped long enough to look, they would see that we're breathing and very much alive," Wolf said. "We've living in the shadows."
A 24-hour laundromat is among their few refuges from the cold and clamor of the streets. Amid the hypnotic whirl of washing machines, the couple will pull out a collection of colored pencils and make intricate sketches of the urban landscape and people they know or have seen on the streets. For the most part, people leave the couple alone here, and they typically leave with their freshly washed clothing piled in bundles on their shopping carts.
Over the past year living on the streets, the couple said they have been visited twice by nonprofit homeless outreach workers who offered them immediate shelter. On both occasions, they turned down the help because they were told they would have to leave their shopping carts with all their belongings behind or sleep in separate units. "All we have out here is each other," Wolf said.
But months of sleeping on cement have taken a physical and mental toll. Just before Thanksgiving, Wolf started to feel sharp pains around her ribs and chest, which has made it even more of a struggle to push their 100-pound carts down snowy sidewalks. She pondered going to a hospital emergency room, but fears their belongings would be lost or stolen if she was kept overnight. Many evenings, dinner consists of hot water from gas station coffee machines poured over instant noodles.
"It's a struggle out here to do anything — absolutely anything," Wolf said. "The reality is, there's only so long that we can continue living like this."
As darkness fell on a Monday night, Wendt converted a long piece of plywood into a makeshift broom and scraped mud, snow and cigarette butts from the spot where they would lie down for the night on a thin pile of foam pads. Using their shopping carts as barriers against the wind, the couple crawled under the blankets with their winter hats on.
They were barely visible under the flickering light of a distant street lamp as they pressed their bodies against each other for warmth.