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'We're not animals': St. Paul clears out the Cathedral Hill homeless camp

The volunteers, city workers and law enforcement stand around the last tent standing in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill homeless encampment.

The volunteers, city workers and law enforcement stand around the last tent standing in St. Paul's Cathedral Hill homeless encampment. Hannah Jones

Tyler Lawrence pulls the metal skeleton out of his shabby blue tent as quickly as he can. It’s Thursday afternoon on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul. For most of the city, it’s just one day closer to the weekend. For Lawrence and his fellow residents in the homeless camp at the base of the cathedral, life as they know it is ending.

Lawrence’s tent is the only one that remains on the site. A few other residents -- or, former residents, now -- sit on the curb with their mounds of possessions, or hitch them up to bicycles. Thursday was the city’s deadline for the campers to clear out and find some other shelter. Minnesota Department of Transportation workers and law enforcement started dismantling the tents and picking up belongings with tongs, rakes, and shovels around 10 a.m. that morning. It had to be done, city officials said. Conditions would be too cold, the risk of fire too high.

Lawrence says he’s been there since March, but that things were different then. That summer, the camp had been like a community -- a place where people respected one another and helped people out. But since then, conditions had descended into chaos.

“People throwing dirty needles, people robbing people, people jumping people,” he says, sorting through the bags and blankets that remained in the tent. He doesn’t blame the city for wanting to clear it out. But on the other hand, he says, and the police haven’t been making things any easier for them. He says if officers found people’s tents unoccupied, they’d simply clear them out -- belongings, money, everything.

“They take our shit,” he says. “We definitely could have been more respectful… but it’s a two-way street. It’s not one person’s fault.”

Lawrence says he and his family are headed to the Minneapolis encampment by Hiawatha Avenue, where he says they have food and showers and “shit like that.” An “actual community,” like the Cathedral Hill he remembers from last summer. Plenty of others are headed the same way, but a lot of them have some reservations.

Shopping carts and garbage bags full of possessions were hauled away in pickup trucks.

Shopping carts and garbage bags full of possessions were hauled away in pickup trucks. Hannah Jones

“Minneapolis is even worse,” volunteer Kevin King says. He says he’s helped move five families and all their stuff out of the camp. He was currently helping Lawrence load his tent and belongings into his van. A lot of the camp denizens “didn’t trust Minneapolis,” he says, but didn’t know where else to go.

Hitting up a shelter didn’t seem like a great option either, camp resident Peter Johnson says.

“They’re nasty and gross,” he says. He’s been in the St. Paul camp for two months -- “too long,” he says -- and sometimes had to burn propane just to make it through the icy November nights. But he still didn’t want to stay in a shelter.

He watches heavy machinery heft shopping carts, bulging trash bags and bicycles, dropping them into the back of city pickup trucks. He frowns.

“They got a warm house to go to,” he says of the police officers and the volunteers in yellow milling about. “I’ve got a tent to stay warm… One thing I’ve got to say is we’re not animals. We’re human beings… I’m a person just like anyone else.”

A group of volunteers shake their heads when asked if they want to share how they feel about all this. It’s not their favorite part of their job, one of them says.

By the time 2:30 p.m. rolls around, the November sun has begun setting, and the hill has been cleared of most signs of life. The tents are gone. The shopping carts have been wheeled away. The grass is empty save for muddy tracks from the machinery. The place doesn’t look untouched so much as abandoned.

And in countless little spots in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and the surrounding area, the hill’s former residents are setting up camp, taking inventory, or merely puzzling out what their lives would be like for the next few months.

“You would think [the city] had the funds allocated to fix this problem,” King says. “It’s a shame that the city has to do this. I get it, but it’s a shame.”