THE NEW NOMADS

How do you solve a problem as intractable as homelessness?

But shortly after PSP's board gave Treiber the boot last August, it began withholding rent to Leamington. The organization claimed the landlord refused to deal with structural repairs for which it was responsible under the lease, and the matter ended up in housing court. A settlement in December gave PSP $133,000 in rent reductions over seven months. But the roof still wasn't fixed. Finally on May 10, Minneapolis building inspectors came by, looked at the roof, and issued a "Notice of Intent to Condemn," giving PSP 30 days to fix the damage.

Instead, PSP gave Leamington seven days' notice and notified the media. Board chair Susan Lucas gave reporters tours of the building, pointing out peeling paint, cracking plaster, and ruined ceilings. "We tell people that we're going to treat them with dignity and respect," she complained, "and then we put them in rooms that don't reflect that."

PSP officials hem and haw a bit when asked why they picked this particular time to precipitate a showdown. The roof, after all, had been leaking for years, and PSP officials acknowledge that they themselves called in the building inspectors. Executive Director Becky Worner says the group wanted to get things over with before summer, which usually brings a surge in the number of homeless people. Chances are the move was also designed to force Leamington's hand on the rent reductions, which were set to expire at the end of June. The two organizations have been negotiating, and both sides say there's a chance the Drake might reopen, perhaps with fewer beds. A mediation session is planned for later this summer.

If the Drake stays closed, there are plenty of people who won't miss it. The cops don't have to worry about being called to the facility anymore; Elliot Park neighbors, who have long been blaming the shelter for crime and loitering, practically cheered when the doors were locked. County Commissioner Mike Opat says he "would proclaim victory in some measure" for the county's shelter-rationing policy. And PSP's Worner acknowledges that "organizationally, our life is a lot easier without the Drake. We have one building, and we can turn our attention to the social services rather than fight with the landlord."

What no one talks about much is what would seem to be the main impact from the closing: The fact that it put the county shelter system right back into the crunch mode it sought to relieve with the policy changes last year. Though some of its rooms had been closed lately due to water damage, the Drake contained almost half of all the county's shelter beds. And while once only childless adults slept there, up to half its space had more recently been used for families as the other shelters filled up. When the hotel closed there were enough beds in the rest of the county system to pick up its 126 remaining guests. But with that, whatever excess capacity the system had to deal with during the summer rush was gone. If current trends hold, that means the county will either have to issue more vouchers for homeless people to stay in budget motels--an unpopular option at $50 a night--or figure out how to turn more of them away.

No one knows exactly how many people are homeless. The most commonly used number is that of people in shelters, though that's misleading for obvious reasons: When people are being turned away, "homelessness" can be shown to drop even as it's getting worse. Real figures are harder to come by, since there's no solid way to estimate how many people are doubling up, sleeping in abandoned houses, or drifting around. The best guesses may lie in studies by the research branch of the Wilder Foundation, which in 1994 estimated the number of people "homeless or precariously housed" on any given day in Minnesota at more than 12,000. By contrast, there were just under 5,000 spaces statewide in shelters, transitional housing, and detoxes.

A few things are known about those 12,000. More and more of them each year comprise families; Wilder researcher Greg Owen says there were four times as many homeless families in 1994 as in 1990, while the number of childless adults on the street doubled. Many--between 40 and 60 percent of adults, depending on who's counting--are mentally ill, drug- or alcohol-addicted, or both. And it's an axiom in the business that if you didn't have those kinds of problems before you landed on the street, chances are you soon will.

Finally, shelter providers report a growing number of working people using their beds, and that figure is rising too: Between 1990 and 1994, Owen's research indicates, the share of homeless adults who held down jobs rose from 19 percent to 25 percent. About half of those jobs were full-time. Some temp-labor agencies run vans past shelter doors to pick up their regular workers.

At St. Stephen's--a church-basement shelter that takes no county reimbursement and is thus one of the few to still accept single, nondisabled men--one recent night, at least a dozen of the 40 men who had won a cot through the nightly lottery were asking to be awakened at 5 a.m. to go to work. Among them was James, a tall, balding, bespectacled man in his early 50s who works about 25 hours a week stacking supplies at the Metrodome. He had a family and a good job in Omaha years ago; then the plant where he worked shut down. His current weekly paycheck, after child support, comes to less than $100. The average efficiency apartment in the Twin Cities rents for $350 a month, and most places require an income of at least twice the rent.

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