Saying that swelling homeless camps in the east metro have become unsafe, unsanitary and potential coronavirus hot spots, Ramsey County leaders are asking the state to open and operate a temporary 200-bed shelter.
More shelter beds would make it possible to humanely dismantle large and unsafe camps — including one just blocks from the State Capitol — and move residents, county leaders said.
Ramsey County officials sent a letter this week to the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management division saying they are already stretched beyond capacity and pleading for help.
“Size of encampments is now growing significantly, sanitation approaches established by [St. Paul and Ramsey County] are now failing, and the public health threat from COVID-19 spread, drug use and generally unsanitary and uncontrolled conditions means that the current encampment situation is untenable,” according to the letter from Judson Freed, the county’s director of emergency management and homeland security.
According to Freed’s letter, 149 people were living in St. Paul encampments at the end of April, and the population “has been increasing by significant numbers each week.”
St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said Friday that city officials are “in complete agreement with the county’s request that we need more low-barrier, indoor shelter capacity.” They’re worried that the camps are dangerous for both the community and the people who stay there.
“There are predators who prey on vulnerable individuals in the tents,” Tincher said. “That is where you get human trafficking and other really unsavory behavior.”
Ramsey County has already spent millions to help homeless people maintain social distancing during the coronavirus crisis. Efforts include spacing out beds at existing shelters, opening 120 homeless beds for isolation and quarantine in downtown St. Paul, preparing 80 similar beds at the shuttered Boys Totem Town youth correctional campus, and renting hundreds of hotel rooms for homeless youth and seniors.
“The county is stepping up and doing a lot, but we are at the point where we are maxed out. We need the state to be there with us,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough. “ If we are going to try to disassemble these camps, we have to have safe options for folks.”
One of the largest homeless camps consists of nearly 20 tents next to the Minnesota History Center, across the freeway from the State Capitol. The area along Kellogg Boulevard is strewn with trash and smells of urine. Some of those camping there yelled at people approaching the area Friday morning.
“They don’t have access to sanitation or any of the things we know that will help protect us from COVID,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo. “There have been rapes and assaults there. There is open intravenous drug use. It’s not clean and it’s not safe.”
McDonough said he spent several hours Tuesday at the History Center encampment to better understand the issues going on there.
“It was not good,” he said.
In a written statement, state Housing Commissioner Jennifer Leimaile Ho said she is “deeply concerned for the welfare of people facing homelessness outdoors.”
She said the state has mobilized more than $40 million in resources to maintain and expand homeless shelter capacity across Minnesota, including the Twin Cities.
“We are identifying ways to add staffing capacity to local governments to help meet the immediate need and to pick up parts of this response that we know local governments can’t do alone,” Ho said.
McDonough and MatasCastillo said they have been in talks with state officials and were hopeful that help will soon be on the way.
Gov. Tim Walz “keeps talking about a battle plan,” MatasCastillo said. “But we have people being left on the battlefield. We need reinforcements.”