Helter Shelter

Fresh air, a river at your feet, and stars on the ceiling: Home, sweet home. At least until Minneapolis cops raid your camp.

In 1995, the state legislature eliminated the Work Readiness program, which offered a $203 monthly check, job training, food stamps, and eligibility for county-paid emergency shelter to some 1,800 people statewide, mostly adult men and most of them in Hennepin County. Two years later, as part of welfare reform, the federal government tightened the guidelines for obtaining Supplemental Security Income (SSI)--financial assistance to people with disabilities--and another round of men, previously considered disabled because of drug or alcohol addiction, dropped through the safety net.

Meanwhile, the slow leak of homeless shelter space in the Twin Cities turned into a hemorrhage: Before 1995 the county had promised shelter to anyone who needed it, and maintained bed space for 1,200. But shortly after the Work Readiness changes, the offer was revoked; in May 1996 the county closed the Drake Hotel, a 600-bed shelter in Minneapolis that served mostly adult men and women without children.

Now, says Marge Wherley, who supervises the county's adult housing program, Hennepin's policy is that "The most vulnerable people should be housed first"--meaning families with children (who are put up at downtown Minneapolis's 410 shelter, and in motel rooms the county rents) and those who are certified as disabled or chronically unemployable. "That," Wherley confirms, "leaves a lot of other people out."

For them, the county provides "safe waiting" space, a stripped-down shelter that looks like a Greyhound lobby without chairs, ticket booths, or buses. Every night, people line up for one of some 250 mats and cots laid out on a bare vinyl floor. Most nights, dozens more are turned away. "We don't think it's the equivalent of shelter," Wherley says, "but it keeps people from freezing." For many, downtown's safe waiting becomes home, as months drag into years, with no increase in the possibility of alternative housing.

A handful of smaller shelters, like the one at St. Stephen's Church in South Minneapolis, offer bunk beds for up to four weeks at a time. St. Stephen's has 40 spaces; staffers say on any given night the facility turns away as many people as it allows in. And the situation is perhaps most dire for teens: A study conducted last October found 377 "unaccompanied youth" in Minnesota on the streets that month. The three local institutions that offer beds for homeless kids have space for fewer than 50.

But while shelter space has declined drastically, demand has shot up. Across the state, the rate of homelessness is as high as it's been since anyone started keeping track of the numbers. The research office of the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit with more than 100 social service programs, conducts a study of homelessness every three years. According to their most recent survey, on October 23, 1997 there were 5,238 people living in Minnesota's homeless shelters, battered women's shelters, and transitional housing programs, compared to 2,875 in 1991. Add in people with what Wilder's Greg Owen calls "precarious housing"--those who live on the street, in abandoned buildings, or doubled up in friends' homes--and the numbers jump significantly: from 7,980 in 1991 to 15,759 last year.

The foundation also found that one in three of the homeless people surveyed held a job, and one in six worked full time. In previous studies, Owen says, "There's always been some marginal employment. But what we're seeing now is this core of 17 to 20 percent who are employed, and who either remain homeless or become homeless. What that tells us is that the issue is the affordable housing crisis."

Pinning down the percentage of homeless people who live outside is quite a bit more difficult than estimating the shelter population, Owen says. Last year Wilder interviewers surveyed 195 residents in metropolitan area camps--admittedly a fraction of the total population. "We certainly know it's bigger than the number we've interviewed," Owen concludes. "I think it's at least two to three times that many, and it may be as high as 10 times."

Indeed, there are stretches along the Mississippi where, if you know what to look for, it's hard not to count half a dozen camps in a 15-minute walk. Scraps of tarp are strung over driftwood and scrap lumber. Blankets and clothing lie scattered in clearings. Bundles of sleeping bags are hidden away under the shrubbery. A living room might be a couple of couch cushions, old tree stumps, maybe a car seat. Fire pits form the dining room.

Patrick Wood, who works with the North Minneapolis outreach program People Incorporated, may be the only non-tramp who regularly visits the camps, offering to hook up their residents with what social services are left for them, chiefly mental-health programs. The last time he set out to count the entire population, he came up with a total of 758 outdoor dwellers--and he knows that a number of the craftiest campers, those who tuck their bodies into old sewer pipes and nooks beneath downtown buildings, escaped even that census.

Wood says that after some five years of working with camp tramps, he's noticed that they, by and large, aren't clamoring for shelter or other government assistance. "They tend to be conservative in their politics, especially the vets. They tend to believe they should be self-reliant, that they should be able to take care of themselves." And they used to be able to do that, he argues: "When I moved here in 1974, there were probably 15 or 20 sleeping-room hotels downtown," offering beds for a few dollars a night and providing independent living for people with no jobs, low-paying jobs, and those on fixed incomes.

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