Ramsey County's 64-bed winter overflow homeless shelter will stay open year-round to accommodate the region's growing number of homeless who often ride light-rail trains in lieu of shelter and are increasingly camping outdoors.

The decision to extend the Winter Safe Space shelter is partly a response to Metro Transit's decision to eliminate overnight light-rail service in St. Paul on weeknights starting in August. An estimated 250 to 300 people ride the Green Line each night for shelter. Now it will halt service from 2 to 4 a.m. on weeknights, mirroring the Blue Line schedule.

"It's critical we come up with other options for these individuals," said Tina Curry, Ramsey County director of financial assistance services, during a briefing this week with the County Board.

Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Union Gospel Mission also are adding capacity, with a combined 56 extra beds at their shelters.

County Board members met Tuesday to discuss the array of strategies they're now deploying to address the growing homeless population, which they say is made worse by a regional shortage of affordable housing.

Anticipating that the number of people forced to sleep outdoors could swell, both Ramsey County and St. Paul are refining their responses to homeless encampments, relying more on quick intervention from social workers and staffers rather than action by law enforcement officials.

St. Paul officials already this year have identified 83 different homeless campsites, often on the edge of parks and on government land. Some sites amount to only one or two tents, said Ricardo Cervantes, the city's safety and inspections director.

Since 2015, the number of homeless people statewide has risen by 10% to 10,233, according to a Wilder Research report released in March. That's the highest number recorded in the nearly three decades that Wilder has tracked the data.

County commissioners and staffers stressed that the government response to homeless individuals at camps and in shelters must be dignified, compassionate and helpful in terms of connecting them to services. Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough said he does not want to see jail bookings climb as a result of the city and county's response to homelessness.

"We will never be able to rebuild that trust," McDonough said.

'The solution is housing'

Ramsey County Manager Ryan O'Connor said the long-term solution is increased investment in affordable housing, now happening at the state and local level.

This spring the Legislature passed $60 million in bonding for supportive housing, but O'Connor said more year-round shelter beds will be a necessary stopgap for the next several years until more housing gets built.

"It's an uncomfortable recognition of the state we are in," O'Connor told the board.

Safe Space, the detox center in the county building at Kellogg Boulevard and Jackson Street, can accommodate 64 people each night. The county is painting the place, adding personal lockers and replacing the air conditioner in hopes of reopening it in August. Officials are exploring ways to staff it, most likely contracting with a consortium of nonprofits.

Homeless shelters run by nonprofits also are stepping things up. Union Gospel Mission is adding as many as 20 beds to its shelter, bringing its total of emergency beds to around 214, spokesman Dan Furry said. "We are more than willing to help when there is a temporary, immediate need," he said.

Echoing what county leaders say, Furry said that Union Gospel would like to pivot from emergency responses to more long-term solutions.

"Our objective is not to just give people a place to eat and sleep, but to give them the tools and the scaffolding needed to transform their lives and be productive members of society," Furry said.

Catholic Charities is adding 36 beds at Higher Ground in downtown St. Paul, bringing its total number of emergency shelter beds to 356, said Tracy Berglund, senior director of housing stability. She said the need is acute.

"We do see some folks staying out on our courtyard because we are full," Berglund said.

Affordable housing is the long-term solution, she said. Catholic Charities leaders were heartened to see the Legislature's investment in affordable housing last session.

"We are clear the solution is housing," Berglund said. "There is more that needs to be done, but that is a helpful start."

Both St. Paul and Ramsey County have recalibrated how they address homeless camps, and city officials are periodically updating their list of camp locations. The most notable such site last year sprang up at the base of Cathedral Hill with more than 30 tents and lasted into the fall.

Staffers and social workers connect people sleeping outside with health, chemical dependency and housing services. They often help them move and then clean up the area, and efforts are made to secure personal property so IDs and birth certificates are not lost, officials said.

"Last year, it was a more of a regulatory response: 'You have to move,' " Cervantes said. "Now we are actually coordinating our response with outreach workers and services."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804