Fog rose from the St. Paul skyline and morning sun bore down on the dozen tents that remained along Interstate 35E, their inhabitants gradually moving their belongings — a mat, a cot, a pile of clothes — onto the grass.
Alfredo Trujillo stood at the edge, twisting a pin into a locked padlock over and over again. The 39-year-old had lived at the encampment for about three weeks. On Thursday, he watched as St. Paul police officers and other city staff urged the stragglers to pack up and head out.
“It’s a community,” he said. “Imagine if you had a neighborhood that was more intimate and shared — that’s what it is.”
About two weeks after first posting fliers and notifying residents that they would have to leave the encampment near the intersection of Kellogg Boulevard and I-35E, St. Paul officials cleared the remaining tents on Thursday. They estimated about 30 people remained, down from a high of about 80.
“Our goal is to try and get them on a path inside, where it’s going to be warm, safe, dry, where they can find food and get connected with medical,” said Ricardo Cervantes, St. Paul’s Director of Safety and Inspections (DSI). “We understand it’s not perfect, but there are options now.”
Cervantes was on site Thursday morning, along with Mayor Melvin Carter, Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher and other city leaders. The city has been helping people move their belongings to nearby shelters, hotels or other encampments, Cervantes said. As winter approaches, the city and Ramsey County aim to add another 100 shelter beds, bringing the number of available beds in the east metro to more than 800.
Trujillo, who said he’s been homeless on and off since 2012, previously lived in a shelter where he had to be out first thing in the morning and couldn’t return until evening. He spent the hours in between working as a day laborer, panhandling or selling cigarettes, he said. He has no interest in going back.
“This is just as bad here, I guess, but at least I have the freedom to come and go as I please,” he said.
The number of people living outside has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing local governments to respond quickly with temporary housing and other services to prevent the spread of disease. According to DSI, there are 118 encampments throughout St. Paul, with about 300 tents and more than 360 people. That’s down from a 380-person high at the end of August.
Following a March 25 order from Gov. Tim Walz, the city temporarily stopped clearing encampments and set up temporary sanitation services at some sites. The I-35E encampment didn’t get services because drug use, violence, proximity to traffic and other factors made it unsafe to live there, according to the city.
“We never believed this site is a good site,” Cervantes said.
Still, it’s a place where people tend to return. In November 2018, the city cleared the I-35E encampment after it grew to about 30 tents.
Because the site is MnDOT land, Cervantes said, city officials have asked the state to step in and help with maintenance, clearing and security to keep the encampment from growing again.
In Cervantes’ experience clearing encampments in St. Paul, the city has not had to forcibly remove or arrest anyone. Sometimes social workers from the Police Department’s mental health unit step in to help coax people out, he said.
Trujillo was among those who were reluctant to leave Thursday, though he said he’d requested a subsidized studio apartment. A native of Southern California, he moved to Minnesota in 2009 and found he likes the Twin Cities and its music scene.
He said he’d like to learn to play music himself — maybe guitar or piano.
When he gets his own place, he said, maybe he will. But on Thursday night, he wasn’t sure where he would sleep.