THE NEW NOMADS

How do you solve a problem as intractable as homelessness?

Ironically, it's people like James who are among the most drastically affected by the closing of the Drake. It was the only local shelter that stayed open 24 hours a day; residents could work the late shift without worrying about being locked out and didn't have to worry about carrying their belongings with them all the time. There were people who paid the nightly rate out of their own pockets--even at $25 in the final days. Now all that's left are a few extra-low-rate hotels like Catholic Charities' Exodus; boarding houses, which the city is targeting for closure; and the street.

Lately there have been complaints of loitering in the park across from the shuttered Drake. Shelter officials say a few of the regulars are people they know, third-shift workers who can't get in anywhere to sleep during the day.

There was a time when all this made headlines. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, celebrities held benefits for the homeless and newspapers reported the annual statistics with alarm. Locally, groups like the Minneapolis Coalition for the Homeless and Up and Out of Poverty Now! were in the news . A task force on homelessness was duly culled from the ranks of government and service providers. It released several sets of recommendations, some of which were adopted by the relevant government bodies.

But the studies and resolutions and advisory panels were pale compensations for the larger forces that were producing more homelessness--changes in the economy and demolition of local housing stock. "When I came to Minneapolis in 1974," remembers deposed PSP head John Treiber, "there used to be a lot of low-income housing, transit hotels, and so on. I was going to school, and you could get a room for $10, $15 a week, a little apartment for $80 a week. With urban renewal that all disappeared.

"Then when they had the task force, they created a lot of so-called low-income housing. But we used to refer people over there and they'd say 'we can't take people from the Drake. We need someone with a rental history, a steady income.' I can understand why they do that--they have to go into those neighborhoods and have an agreement that they're not going to be a nuisance. But that begs the question: What are you going to do with the people who are a nuisance? What are you going to do with the guy who just got to town?"

Hennepin County's latest answer is, not much. The official emphasis on words like "triaging" and "targeting" reflects a national trend toward directing whatever public assistance moneys there are (shelter funds, welfare, you name it) toward the "salvageable" portion of the clientele--down-on-their-luck families, say, who may get on track with counseling, referrals, and training. The 410 shelter houses a bevy of programs aimed in that direction: a clinic, a women's support group, a school social worker, a Head Start intake office, a Girl Scout troop. The county's Rapid Exit program, which hooks homeless families up with landlords and provides help with damage deposits, has placed hundreds of people in the last couple of years.

But even that is getting harder to do. Sue Roedl, who coordinates one segment of Rapid Exit, says landlords have been increasingly tepid toward shelter clients as the apartment vacancy rate has dropped to near 2 percent. Adding to the trouble are new get-tough policies from the city, chiefly one making landlords responsible for the actions of tenants and anyone else who might visit the premises. Roedl notes, "A lot of landlords are saying, 'I'm willing to believe that this person who has a criminal history is turning their life around. But what if their friends come around?'"

Then there are the ubiquitous blacklists put out by rental-research firms. Having ever been in unlawful-detainer court (whatever the reason) makes it very hard to find an apartment in Minneapolis, says Roedl. Two UDs make it almost impossible. "And no one," she adds, "wants to rent to a family with teenage boys."

All of which leaves a great many people with very few options. Turning large numbers of them out into the streets is something no one wants to discuss openly, but the county plan is fairly candid. "Philosophically," it says, "there is broad consensus for requiring those who use emergency shelter to make active efforts to stabilize their housing... [But] there must also be a safety net for... those who are unwilling to cooperate but must be housed due to legal or ethical considerations. This safety net would take the form of 'safe waiting' places where families and single adults could spend the night, with assurance of supervision."

The county initially offered "safe waiting" in the lobby of the General Assistance building downtown. People started coming in after the office workers had left; they were herded out again between 6 and 8 a.m. Soon a request for bids from outside contractors went out. One of the specifications was that "they didn't want beds or mats on the floor," remembers St. Stephen's shelter Director Ed Murphy. "They only wanted chairs. It seemed as if they were trying to make it as uncomfortable for people as possible." Eventually the county accepted a Catholic Charities proposal that did feature mats--two-inch-thick, vinyl-covered foam pads that are handed out each night at 9.

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