Work to dismantle one of St. Paul's largest homeless encampments and relocate its occupants started Monday, with city and nonprofit workers helping about three dozen people take down their tents and pack up their belongings before driving them to indoor shelters.

The site, on Kellogg Boulevard about a block from City Hall downtown, was the first of eight homeless encampments city leaders plan to dismantle, saying the situation has become unsafe. The scene was busy but orderly on Monday morning, and there was no visible law enforcement presence.

The St. Paul Fire Department has responded to more than 30 out-of-control fires at encampments this year and more than 70 emergency medical calls, including one for a person staying under a bridge who died of exposure. About 30 firefighters responded to a blaze at Kellogg Park early Friday morning, which damaged tents but had no reported injuries.

Mayor Melvin Carter, whose office has coordinated efforts to move residents indoors for the winter, spent an hour at the site speaking to residents preparing to move.

Several dozen people joined by City Council Members Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang came to observe and express their opposition to the city's decision to remove the encampment.

"I absolutely don't support this eviction," Yang said.

Yang and Jalali said people are sleeping outdoors because the current social safety net doesn't adequately serve everyone. They said they'd like St. Paul to explore opening city-sanctioned homeless encampments, which are now operating in other cities including Seattle.

"In general, people are outside because this is the only choice they have," Jalali said. "Poverty is criminalized. One of the of ways we do this is by pushing people in and out of public spaces."

Closing this camp will just push people to set up camps in different parts of the city, exacerbating the problem, Yang said.

But St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said the mayor's office is committed to finding safe and dignified indoor accommodations to help people survive the winter.

"As a society, we can and should be doing better than this," Tincher said Monday as she stood in the middle of the Kellogg encampment.

Tincher said city and nonprofit staff have a list of everyone staying at the site and have been working with them for weeks to find accommodations that meet their individual needs. The city has opened two emergency shelters in recent weeks and is partnering with Ramsey County, which is in the process of opening additional emergency shelters.

Corinne Caouette, who represents a grassroots group of volunteers who have spent time at the encampment, said she doesn't feel the city has done enough outreach. The options provided for homeless residents are also inadequate, she said.

"Shelters are dangerous for a lot of people," Caouette said. "They are also scared about COVID."

The number of homeless people sleeping outside in St. Paul has dramatically increased from a couple of dozen last year to more than 300 this year. The region was already confronting an affordable housing shortage at the start of 2020, and COVID-19 and the ensuing economic fallout have exacerbated the crisis.

St. Paul has provided support for encampments throughout summer and fall, including portable toilets, meal deliveries, trash pickup and regular visits by staff and social workers.

But as temperatures dropped, people began lighting propane cylinders and campfires, often inside tents. Fire Chief Butch Inks said the risk of fires and carbon monoxide is escalating and city officials fear a loss of life.

Fred Williams said he'd agreed to take a bed at a local shelter after spending three months at the Kellogg encampment with a group of friends. City staff are helping him store some of his belongings, he said.

Williams said some of his female friends sleeping alongside him at the encampment are still waiting for indoor accommodations. He said he understands the concerns about fires, but said he feels city leaders' main concern is the deteriorating conditions and growing amount of trash at the site.

He said his group gathers its trash and tries to keep things tidy but others don't.

On Monday morning, the site along the Mississippi River was littered with piles of trash including clothing, blankets, discarded food containers and old furniture, including a recliner. There were containers of what appeared to be urine.

Asking about the city's approach, Williams said, "I haven't seen anyone screaming at anyone."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037