Insecurity Blanket

At Hennepin County's overflow site, you sleep on the floor with your shoes on
Christopher Peters

The two men walking down Portland Avenue betray their provenance from blocks away, what with their horned helmets, purple and gold face-paint, and proximity to the Metrodome. The 40 to 50 people clustered by a pile of mattresses and blankets on the sidewalk are harder to type; the pair of Viking-heads seem perplexed as they push their way through the group of men and women holding candles.

"Someone should get the banner out, or people will think we're Christmas carolers," instructs Cathy ten Broeke, an advocate at St. Stephen's Shelter and a member of the advocacy group Shelter Providers Action Association (SPAA). A handful of SPAA members move toward the curb carrying a yellow banner that reads, "Everyone Has a Right to Dignified Shelter." Few of the passing motorists and pedestrians, most of them flush with the Vikings' romp over the Bears this early-December evening, seem to notice.

But the demonstrators aren't here just to wave banners. At 9:30 p.m., ten Broeke asks the group to huddle for a briefing. Give a mat and a blanket--donated to SPAA during an earlier "blanket drive"--to everyone entering the building, she instructs the demonstrators, and see what the security guards do. "Hopefully, they'll take the mats," she says. "The blankets are a bit problematic." The action is designed to test Hennepin County's policies regarding the annex, recently declared "overflow space" for Hennepin County's Safe Waiting Area for the homeless.

Safe Waiting is the county's answer to a situation created when the state's Work Readiness program ended in 1995. At that point, homeless men who were not eligible for other government assistance found themselves not only out a $203 monthly check, but also barred from county-subsidized shelters. As winter approached, the county and Catholic Charities set up Safe Waiting on Currie Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. The former warehouse holds up to 250 men a night. Women can often get a bed at the nearby Salvation Army, and those with children are still eligible for shelter at the old 410 Motel.

When county officials first conceived of Safe Waiting, they publicly emphasized that they were not creating a new shelter: There were to be no beds, meals, social services, or creature comforts of any sort, only folding chairs and a bare floor. Catholic Charities, which took over operation of the space in '96, successfully lobbied the county to allow the addition of thin foam mats. Even with those stark conditions, Safe Waiting filled to capacity during its first two winters, forcing the county to find overflow space in the lobby of the General Assistance building on Fifth Street.

But this year, the GA building was torn down to make room for a new jail, and the county switched its overflow space to the health services annex. As of November 17, it has been open to up to 70 men each night from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., offering conditions even more spartan than those at Safe Waiting. "Imagine a locker room with drains all around it, with two port-a-potties, and a cement floor to sleep on," ten Broeke says.

For about half an hour, the blanket giveaway goes off without a hitch. But a new crop of security guards arriving at 10 p.m. takes a dim view of the idea and unceremoniously throws the SPAA blankets into the street. A lengthy debate ensues, with protesters invoking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the guards pointing to city health codes. Eventually, Director of Hennepin County Property Services Dick Keen arrives to assess the situation; he rules that the blankets, but not the mats, can stay. The protesters head home, bearing a pile of mats and the smallest of victories.

"Minneapolis isn't going to be Moscow, where people are freezing to death on the streets," says Keen--and that's about the only goal on which everyone involved in the debate seems to agree. (Chances that it'll be accomplished are slim: No figures are available on the number of homeless deaths in Minneapolis, but police confirm that each year brings a few incidents of people found dead from exposure under a bridge or on a sidewalk. The Simpson Shelter has collected the names of 59 homeless people who died in Minnesota in the past year.)

As Keen walks a visitor through the overflow site at noon a couple of days after the protest, the space is empty and quiet. Its seven rooms, averaging about 13 feet by 27 feet, have been vacant for several years and are now being renovated, Keen explains: The water-stained walls are scheduled to be painted, a new fire-security system has been installed, and extra sinks and a drinking fountain are being added.

For the men who face the choice of staying here or at Safe Waiting, the choice comes down to subtle differences. Safe Waiting has mats and showers, and the lights are shut off for the night. But 250 people packed into two floors make the stay noisy, and there have been reports of theft. The overflow site is quieter, but the lights are on all night (a policy Keen says he may change in the future), and clients must sleep directly on the ceramic-tiled floors. "In my mind this is better than what we had at the General Assistance building," Keen says. "I disagree that it's not humane. But is it where I would choose to spend my nights? Certainly not."

A list of rules is tacked to a wall at the chamber's entrance: No alcohol, no drugs, no weapons, and clients' shoes must remain on their feet all night (a rule implemented, Keen says, because some men have complained about shoe theft). The security guards have been trained to enforce these rules, but critics question their lack of experience in dealing with the homeless. "They are not social workers," Keen acknowledges. "I think [during the protest] they were overwhelmed by all the people outside and the mattresses. I specifically followed up on that, and I've instructed them that if anybody hands out blankets, [clients] certainly could have them. The only thing is that when they leave in the morning, they have to take them with them."

SPAA members say they hope to meet with county and city officials soon to improve conditions at the Safe Waiting overflow. But they plan to move cautiously, fearing that the space will be shut down if it becomes too controversial. Some members of the county board advocate making homeless people pay for shelter (one county-subsidized program, Booth Services, offers $6-a-night beds on a first-come-first-served basis) and they call for churches and nonprofit groups to help those who cannot.

"We are no longer the giveaway county board," says County Commissioner Mike Opat, chairman of the board's Budget and Capital committee. "Safe Waiting is a place to get out of the elements. The people there don't qualify for assistance. They are able-bodied. We don't want people to feel comfortable at Safe Waiting, we don't want them to make it their home, but we don't want people freezing to death.

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