St. Paul and Ramsey County officials are planning to clear a homeless encampment near the intersection of Kellogg Boulevard and Interstate 35E, saying it’s not safe for the people living there.
The encampment, located on the Minnesota History Center property and at the bottom of Cathedral Hill, has been cleared previously but is currently home to about 70 people. Though the city provides services to some other encampments, Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said in an interview Wednesday that this particular location at a busy intersection isn’t safe and is interfering with nearby services at Catholic Charities and the Dorothy Day Center.
“There are locations that we do think are better-suited geographically and with the risk factors,” Tincher said, “but we need to be able to be really clear that that location is not one that the city of St. Paul can support individuals camping.”
According to a presentation that Tincher and County Manager Ryan O’Connor gave City Council members Wednesday, there have been reports of criminal activity victimizing encampment occupants, as well as drug use and unsanitary conditions including used needles, feces and large amounts of accumulated garbage.
It’s unclear when occupants must leave, though they will get advance notice and be provided with alternative housing options, Tincher said.
The number of people living outside has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic and is only expected to grow. In St. Paul, there are 355 people living outside, compared with fewer than 30 throughout 2019, Tincher told council members. The situation is similar in Minneapolis, where the Park Board has begun clearing encampments in city parks.
“You can see our trend lines moving in a scary direction, in a way that doesn’t serve people well on the ground, and it ultimately fractures communities,” O’Connor told council members. “We need a serious conversation with leadership coming from other levels that recognizes there are 1,000 people across the two core cities who do not have a place to rest their head under a roof every night right now.”
A recent survey of about 90 people living outside in downtown St. Paul, conducted at Mayor Melvin Carter’s request, found that most are from the Twin Cities, most are men and most identify as people of color, Tincher told council members. Tincher said that outreach staff are aware of three pregnant women living outdoors and that on a recent visit to some of the encampments, she talked with “multiple women who showed clear signs of recent physical abuse.”
St. Paul and Ramsey County have been working together to respond to encampments and expand shelter capacity since 2018. The pandemic has complicated those efforts and required moving people out of shelters and into hotels and other sites to prevent the spread of infection.
City and county officials aim to house 100 more people by Nov. 1, though specific sites have not been announced.
The city and county have identified a combined $52 million in CARES Act and other regional and federal money to pay for longer-term and permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness while also addressing immediate needs, such as meals, sanitary services, health care and security.
Still, officials said, they’re going to need more help.
“If we had a tornado come through and 100 people were left outside, we would have all resources to build housing, and the state would come in and help us,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo. “And yet in this area of homelessness, we don’t treat it like the disaster that it is — and it truly is.”