Homeless Encampments Return to St. Paul as Relief Funding Dries Up

Mark Finley put up his tent three days ago in Lower Landing Park in St. Paul, overlooking the Mississippi River’s fast-moving waves. Finley, 59, of Phoenix, Ariz., and Santa Monica, Calif., said he was seeing his brother in a treatment program and had no intention of staying, but he admitted he didn’t have the money to return west on the Greyhound bus.

A man and woman emerged from a second tent built not far from his own as he ate a donated meal delivered by volunteers on Friday. Tenants of two extra tents on Sibley Street formed their camp just down Shepard Road.

Deputy St. Paul Police Chief Jeremy Ellison, who will shortly serve as temporary police chief, joined St. Paul Fire Chief Butch Inks in the state Capitol this week, but not to appeal for additional funding for police vehicles or fire trucks.

Instead, they requested up to $14 million from the state’s expected budget surplus to help the homeless.

In an interview, St. Paul Fire Deputy Chief of Operations Steven Sampson remarked, “Bottom line, our staff are pleading for help with the unsheltered.” “The only skill set our units have is picking these people up and dropping them off at the hospital, and it isn’t the only assistance these people require.”

“It’s a pointless attempt if the resources aren’t available,” he continued. “Our run stats are out of this world. We’ve quadrupled in size in around ten years, and unsheltered inhabitants account for about 11% of our call flow.”

St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher, as well as letters of support and concern from the president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance and the departing president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association, as well as Ramsey County authorities, joined the police and fire officials.

In St. Paul’s most recent census of unsheltered inhabitants, 47 men and 18 women were recorded sleeping in tents at 38 active camp sites. That’s the most tent communities in over two years, a worrisome increase that calls to mind the early days of the epidemic, when green places like downtown Kellogg Mall Park were overrun by homeless people.

Those encampments generated a lot of police and fire calls in 2020, and they caused a lot of serious injuries and even a death when propane tanks burst.

It’s “a vital time for our downtown and its thousands of companies,” wrote Joe Spencer, president of the Downtown Alliance, in a May 16 letter to Abeler and Liebling, as office employees progressively return to in-person employment.

“A increase in homelessness and encampments in our city comes at the worst conceivable time,” Spencer wrote. “We can’t afford to go back to the way things were in 2020 without destroying downtown and the economic engine it serves the state and area.” Ramsey County has a great model, but it needs state aid to keep it going.”

The city and county proposal include four distinct types of housing assistance, with much of it managed through Ramsey County’s “Heading Home Ramsey” relationship with social service charities. Single-occupancy housing for single individuals, family housing, day programs for the homeless, and a “Familiar Faces” intervention program for frequent flyers before the criminal court system would all benefit from the money.

Otherwise, in order to keep the county’s temporary shelters viable, the city may have to take shelter funds from its affordable housing initiatives, essentially compromising its own longer-term solutions to homelessness in the short term.

“If we invest in caring for and generating resources for vulnerable people who are struggling, we’ll have fewer encampments, less issues for our companies and court system, and we won’t be repeating through crisis after crisis,” Tincher said in an interview on Thursday.

So far, a bill introduced by state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, has gained some support in the DFL-controlled House, however compromise wording has cut the intended funds down to $8 million. Despite bipartisan support, they’re still working on the Senate. Senate sponsor is Republican Senator Dave Senjem.

Homelessness, according to county officials, is a regional issue that is unfairly borne by the two major cities. They pointed out that the majority of the 1,800 homeless people accommodated in Ramsey County’s emergency shelter programs as of Jan. 29 said their last permanent address was outside the county.

In reality, recent residents of St. Paul and Ramsey counties made up only 43% of the total.

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