The daily procession into the basement of the Simpson United Methodist Church begins a little after 6:00 p.m. One by one, people file in. Some are dressed in work uniforms. Some tote knapsacks, invariably crammed full. And a few of the folks at the south Minneapolis church arrive with nothing but the shirts on their backs and the voices in their heads.
Squinting in the bright sunlight outside the entrance, Monica Nilsson, the shelter director, cordially asks each of the new arrivals whether they've got a bed reserved. Simpson can't accommodate all those who come to its doors--a problem compounded by the recent closing of a nearby shelter on Portland Avenue. So it employs a lottery system. Win the lottery and you've got a bed for the month. Lose and you're on your own.
Within a half-hour of opening, the basement is teeming with humanity. Amidst the rows of mattresses, people mill about. Some talk. Some drink coffee. Most just sit mutely and watch a rerun of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on a jumbo TV.
John, a 46-year-old shelter regular with soft eyes and a few days' stubble, shuffles into a cluttered office just off the main room. Last night, John says, he slept outside, underneath an elevated freeway exit just north of downtown. It didn't go well. "There was a lot of people there. Ten or twelve of them. One guy was terrorizing everybody. He took some guy's drink and knocked out his teeth." He pauses for a moment. "It just gets kind of messy down there."
Alarming as such experiences can be, freeway overpasses and other bridges remain popular sleeping spots for the homeless. There is one reason for this: They are among the only places where you can remain dry when it rains.
For John and the estimated 500 other people who spend the night on Minneapolis streets on a given night, the time-honored option of seeking shelter under bridges has become less viable of late. That's because for the last several years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation--as well as the city's Department of Public Works--have been busy installing "transient barriers" in prime sleeping areas.
Fashioned from rebar and bolted into the concrete, the triangular shaped barriers are placed in the spots most favored by the homeless--the flat, denlike areas just below the road surface at either end of a bridge. According to Phil Erickson, a highway maintenance superintendent with the DOT, the transient barrier program was developed in response to complaints from police in Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as from DOT maintenance workers and some members of the motoring public.
In Erickson's view, it's a simple health and safety issue. In recent years, he says, maintenance workers were encountering all sorts of hazards under bridges: human excrement, used needles, broken glass, and "vermin infested" clothing and bedding. In addition, Erickson says, the use of bridges as sleeping quarters poses a risk to the homeless themselves. Why? Because accessing those areas sometimes requires a dangerous scramble across a busy roadway.
That all may be true. But Erickson acknowledges that he has heard of no instances of injuries--to either homeless people or maintenance workers--arising from the use of bridges as shelter. On the other hand, counters Nilsson of the Simpson Housing Services, remaining dry is a fundamental health imperative for the homeless. Failure to do so carries distinctly non-hypothetical risks. "We see lots of people with missing digits. It is always a struggle to keep their feet dry. Socks are the biggest single item we go through here," she observes.
Nilsson is irked by the symbolism of the transient barrier program. The DOT estimates it has spent approximately $12,000 installing the barriers under some 30 bridges in the metro area; while no cost estimates are available, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have both followed MnDOT's lead and installed similar barriers under city-owned bridges.
Nilsson notes that these expenditures have been made against the backdrop of significant reductions in state aid for the homeless. According to the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, two such programs (Emergency Services and Transitional Housing) sustained a combined 29 percent cut in funding in the last legislative session. Already as many as 1,000 people are turned away from Minnesota shelters on a nightly basis. Homeless advocates worry that the additional cuts will only compound the problem.
"And that's what drives us crazy," Nilsson says. "In April, we lose funding for 100 beds in Minneapolis. And at same time, the state finds money to install these metal bars under bridges."
Back at the Simpson shelter, John says he's not too worried about the elimination of a few sleeping spots under bridges. He says he's already spent too much time under bridges. "I lived under a bridge in Des Moines for two months," he adds. "People hollering as they drove by, throwing stuff at you. It was crazy."
But, he says, the transient barriers don't strike him as much of a remedy.
"Of course it doesn't solve anything. People are already having a hardship. This just makes it a little harder. We're still going to be outside," he says. Then, with a sweep of his arm, he gestures toward the Simpson shelter and asks: "Why don't we just have money for more places like this?"
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