THE NEW NOMADS

How do you solve a problem as intractable as homelessness?

Currie Avenue is a two-block-long, dead-end stretch of city street tucked away and generally unknown on the north side of downtown Minneapolis. It's a busy street, even if most of the real estate there looks vacant. People come and go all day long at the Salvation Army's Harbor Lights center, a combination shelter, detox, and transitional housing site. There is also the former soup kitchen at 1010 Currie, now known as the Hennepin County Safe Waiting Space. People start lining up there by 4:30 every afternoon, waiting for the door to open on the newest and bleakest experiment in local poverty policy.

By 8 o'clock on one recent night there were about 80 people in the waiting space, a large room furnished with nothing but a few old church pews. This is home for the night for those who can't find shelter elsewhere, and it isn't meant to be a comfortable experience. The people here strain for gestures of normalcy. One man dribbles a basketball in the corner, while another unpacks a tiny portable TV and, after some deliberation, sets it up where the whole room can watch its black-and-white static glow.

Some of the pews are arranged to form a rectangle. Inside is the women's area; officials decided to separate the sexes after a few months of operation to cut down on arguments between couples. About 20 women occupy the space, most of them white, some looking dirty and lost and some resembling office workers after hours. A gray-haired woman is telling her friend a complicated story: "And so every time the government passes a program, they issue bonds, and people buy the bonds. So then the government has to pay interest, and that's what they do with our taxes. And when the Federal Reserve meets, and they talk about the interest rates..." She takes to a whisper after that. Along the other wall, a woman is meticulously spreading layers of newspaper on the vinyl floor; a smaller sheet of brown packing paper goes over the top to make a mattress, while her belongings are neatly set up around the edges. By lights-out some 200 people will have made beds on the floor in this room and an identical one upstairs.

A year ago, the people who crash here would have stayed at shelters operated by Hennepin County, chiefly the 650-bed Francis Drake Hotel. But the Drake is closed for good as of last month. The ostensible reason was a leaky roof; the consequences of the closing, to hear news media tell it, were minimal. As the Star Tribune put it, a surprising "decline in the numbers of homeless" had made the Drake's beds all but unnecessary.

None of that came close to explaining what had happened. The Drake had had a bad roof and other maintenance problems for a long time, but that had never threatened its viability before. And the county's own figures show no basis for claiming any decline in homelessness.

What did change is that last fall, Hennepin County officially abandoned its promise to shelter everyone in need. The much-cited decline in "homelessness" has only reflected a decline in the number of people allowed into shelters under the revised county standards. The first casualties were childless, nondisabled adults. But everyone involved acknowledges that it won't stop there.

"People had been saying for quite a while that things are going to change, that we're not going to be doing shelter the way we had in the past," says Allison Boisvert, a low-income housing administrator at Catholic Charities. "But no one really understood what that meant. It was looked at as a more dire forecast than necessary. When it actually came down, all of us were surprised that they actually stopped sheltering people. We've always been more benevolent [in Minnesota] than some other places; the weather has dictated that. But it's over now."

Hennepin County created its current shelter system in the early '80s, when homelessness rose in the wake of welfare cuts and a recession. Its policy was to turn no one away, and officials expected the entire program to be temporary. But homelessness refused to disappear, and finally the county switched from small shelters scattered around town to centralized poverty hotels. Chief among them were the Drake and the old Leamington Motor Inn (known as the 410, and reserved for families), both operated under contract by a group called People Serving People. For $10 per person per day, PSP promised to provide rooms sleeping two, three, and four people, three meals a day, and a "clean, safe, dignified environment."

How well that promise was fulfilled has been a matter of contention over the years. Critics, including some county officials, claimed the Drake was dirty, badly maintained, and dangerous for both clients and staff. There were also complaints that PSP head John Treiber, a tough-talking, formerly homeless recovering alcoholic, had built a monopoly on the shelter business through chummy relationships with county commissioners (one of whom eventually went to work for him). Treiber--who, after 15 years at PSP's helm, was quietly booted out last summer--denies those accusations, saying it was the county that kept asking him to shoehorn more people into PSP's buildings.

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