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Hundreds use the Twin Cities light rail for shelter each night – these officials stayed up to meet them

St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson met some of her constituents on Friday night while they hunkered down for shelter on the train.

St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson met some of her constituents on Friday night while they hunkered down for shelter on the train. Mitra Jalali Nelson, Twitter

It was Friday night, and wouldn’t be for much longer. Mitra Jalali Nelson, who was elected to the St. Paul City Council in August, boarded the light rail at 11:30 p.m., wearing leggings, a hoodie, and a warm coat. She would remain there, riding back and forth, for hours.

She and Hennepin County Commissioner-elect Angela Conley were invited by Monica Nilsson, a longtime advocate for people experiencing homelessness. Their mission was to meet with some of the constituents they hear from the least: the 200 or so homeless Minnesotans who ride the light rail lines all night, trying to stay warm and safe. 

“The light rail is the biggest de facto shelter right now,” Nelson says. She walked down the length of one train at the top of the evening and counted about 46 people slumped in their seats, trying to sleep.

Nelson and Conley both ran their campaigns on housing issues, in the wake of some of the most visible homelessness crises the Twin Cities have ever seen: the camps at Cathedral Hill in St. Paul and Franklin and Hiawatha in Minneapolis.

She says the people she met that night didn’t necessarily surprise her, but meeting them face-to-face “deepened” her fears about Minnesota’s lack of affordable housing, and sharpened her drive to address them. Her midnight ride has remained stuck in her head, she says.

Part of what hit her the hardest was the fact that many of the people she talked to had jobs -- some of them full-time. At 2 a.m. Saturday morning, she met a man named Michael, who had a job in a hotel kitchen. He stowed his belongings in his work locker so he could get some rest on the train without them being stolen. He has been doing this for six months. She asked him, as she was beginning to feel the cold and the ache of her relatively short stint as a night passenger, if he ever really slept.

No, he told her. If you really want to get some sleep, you sleep at a library. A shelter space – seemingly the obvious choice -- has its own drawbacks, even beyond low vacancy rates. Some shelters take your belongings. Some split up your family. For many, the train is the best option. And this option, Nelson says, “hurt.”

“I was only out there half a night, and I had a place to go home to at the end,” Nelson says. Still, by the small hours of Saturday morning, she felt a deep, bitter cold in her “muscles and bones,” and a jittery fog in her mind. How can you expect to ace a job interview, she says, when your “brain has been completely destroyed by two weeks not sleeping?”

“We don’t understand the choices they have to make,” she says.

Nelson says she’s gotten praise from Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Bender and Mayor Jacob Frey for the train ride, and she’s hoping it will inspire the Twin Cities and the counties to work on this problem together. Homelessness, like the light rail, spans cities and counties. It will take a concerted effort to fix it.

But tonight, hundreds more will board the train and stay until sunrise.