BACK IN 1990 AND '91, a group called Up and Out of Poverty achieved a moment of fame by doing something uncommon in Minnesota politics: Instead of asking people to do more for the homeless, it started to just take over vacant, government-owned houses around the Twin Cities. At one point that winter, some 200 people squatted in HUD and Veterans Administration homes for weeks and months at a time. TV cameras showed up for the takeovers, and housing officials squirmed before the microphones.
There are now more homeless people in the Twin Cities than there were then; according to the Wilder Research Center's shelter census, the number of people on the streets rocketed from under 1,000 in 1990 to more than 2,500 in '94. But the data are no longer news, and neither is Up and Out. The last time the group, which spent a few years wracked by internal disputes, made headlines was last month, when Gov. Arne Carlson cited an alleged death threat from Up and Out in the squabble over the firing of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Jordan. Up and Out spokesman Mark Thisius says state agents quizzed him about the threat--phoned in anonymously to KSTP-TV, and allegedly involving Carlson, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, and the premiere of Grumpier Old Men--back in December. He passed a polygraph test, and was told the investigation was over. Yet Carlson called the matter "ongoing" when he fired Jordan, a fact Thisius says has cost the group some donors.
So it's perhaps no surprise that Up and Out isn't counting on the media for its latest campaign. On May 1 the group took over two HUD homes, but this time the banners and show arrests that marked earlier "actions" were missing. Even the neighbors didn't notice one of the takeovers, in south Minneapolis; by contrast, the dozen people who broke into a house on St. Paul's east side confronted a throng of angry residents and squad cars.
Thisius says for now, the group doesn't seek to accomplish much with the squats beyond training existing members, attracting new ones, and providing a night's worth of shelter. "Then, once our numbers increase, we'll put forward demands" such as fulfillment of a 1988 promise by then-HUD Secretary Jack Kemp that 10 percent of HUD homes would be turned over to homeless people. It's a message that could fall on receptive ears on the streets where aid cuts and new get-tough policies (Hennepin County now offers a shelter featuring mats on bare floors) help increase the number of people prepared for desperate measures.