St. Paul leaders said Tuesday they will dismantle eight homeless encampments and relocate residents to shelters starting next week, citing the risk of fires and exposure to the cold.
The St. Paul Fire Department this year has responded to 30 out-of-control fires at camps where propane cylinders and other flammable heat sources have caught fire and even exploded, igniting nylon tents, nearby trees and debris. Emergency crews have also been dispatched to 75 emergency medical calls at camps, including a homeless person staying under a bridge who died of exposure.
"It's a dangerous, dangerous situation," said St. Paul Fire Chief Butch Inks, explaining how one man suffered serious legs burns after his campsite caught fire.
Inks said well-meaning people have been dropping off propane cylinders at encampments as temperatures drop. Encampment residents are starting fires or using those propane cylinders inside their tents, attempting to vent the smoke with makeshift tubes and piping and creating a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said the city has set up two temporary emergency shelters in recent weeks. The goal now is to persuade the nearly 120 people living in encampments to come indoors and seek long-term help.
The number of homeless people sleeping outdoors in St. Paul, which numbered in the dozens a year ago, has skyrocketed to more than 300 at times this year.
St. Paul, Minneapolis, Hennepin and Ramsey counties are all scrambling to find more indoor accommodations for the surging homeless population — a situation made worse this year by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic downturn.
In Hennepin County, a notice of closure was given this week to the people living in an encampment on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. About 40 tents had been set up and there was a fire over the weekend. The city has also removed about 100 propane tanks.
The Hennepin County Board on Tuesday approved $20.5 million to buy two Minneapolis hotels — one downtown, the other near the University of Minnesota campus — that will house homeless people with COVID-19.
The factors behind the purchase include the need to house homeless individuals who are vulnerable to COVID-19, the high cost of renting hotel and motel rooms and shrinking shelter capacity, said David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County's Office to End Homelessness.
The county has spent more than $42 million in federal funding during the pandemic to buy buildings to house COVID patients and specific homeless populations, such as women and American Indians. Overall, the county has found housing for more than 1,500 homeless people.
"At the end of 2019, our strategy for homelessness was to make it easier to access to shelters, quicker placement into housing and expand capacity for underserved populations," Hewitt said. "Now we are in crisis management and those goals have been sped up. But we already had a road map in place."
Ramsey County is exploring opening a third temporary homeless shelter in an old office and residence maintained by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. The county has already leased a vacant dormitory at Luther Seminary and the old Bethesda Hospital building to house the homeless.
On Tuesday, St. Paul officials including Tincher and Inks went tent to tent speaking with residents of a camp along Kellogg Boulevard overlooking the Mississippi River. The camp, just a block from City Hall, is the first slated for closure on Monday.
City officials say they're working with the about 36 people who live in the camp to figure out what benefits they might be eligible for, including Social Security and Section 8 housing. It can be a slow process, with many camp residents reluctant to move or fearful of leaving their possessions behind.
Tincher spent 20 minutes Tuesday talking to a resident who described her challenges with addiction, her upcoming court dates and her close call with a fire that burned an earlier campsite.
Tincher said they persuaded one resident to leave the camp.
"We had a woman move indoors today," Tincher said. "We got her connected and moved in.