- Associated Press - Saturday, September 12, 2020

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Next to a freeway exit in downtown St. Paul, where people used to sleep in one or two tents, more have cropped up in a small homeless encampment.

It’s a sign of how many people have resorted to living outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic and, as the weather cools, the urgency of finding places for them to go, St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said.

At the start of October last year, the city counted 26 people living in encampments. Now, the numbers are “astronomical by comparison,” said Ricardo Cervantes, director of St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections.

This past week, there were 380 people recorded as “sleeping outdoors, on the streets, under bridges, in caves in St. Paul,” according to Tincher.

“Everything we’re seeing across St. Paul is the housing crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID,” she said. Capacity at shelters had to be reduced to allow for social distancing. And homeless people who used to be able to sleep on a friend or relative’s couch are finding that’s not an option, the Pioneer Press reported.

St. Paul and Ramsey County officials have been racing to find places for 100 people to stay by Nov. 1.

“That’s usually a five-year planning endeavor and we’ve been working to get it done in three months, four months,” Cervantes said. “The urgency is very high.”

Fred Bass, who has been living in a tent by the highway in Lowertown, said he’d like to get on the list for a place to stay, as long as it doesn’t feel like the shelters he’s tried in the past - “everything is like jail in there,” he said.

Bass, 49, was planning to move his tent to a different location on Friday.

“It’s never been this bad, with so many tents,” he said.

St. Paul and Ramsey County are planning to use million of dollars in emergency federal funding for the COVID-19 response for resources for the homeless population.

For the 100 beds that officials are aiming to have in place in November, they’ve been looking for places that can house perhaps 20 people - along with providing services and staffing, Cervantes said. They’ve been checking into properties that would be ready to go as-is or would need limited construction.

“We’re very much concerned as winter is approaching we have to come up with other options,” Cervantes said. “One hundred beds is not going to satisfy all the need, but it is a number that we believe we can achieve, given the funding, given the time in front of us.”

There are approximately 95 encampments in St. Paul - ranging from a few tents to as many as an estimated 72 people living above Interstate 35E near Kellogg Boulevard this week, Cervantes said.

The city’s objective isn’t to move people from encampments, unless that’s necessary for safety, but St. Paul officials said in August they need to clear the Cathedral Hill encampment due to health and security concerns.

Tents line a sidewalk on the outskirts of downtown St. Paul, overlooking Interstate 35E, on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

The city posted notices to make sure people knew the encampment will be closed next week and outreach workers have continued trying to find resources for people, Tincher said.

In the past week, Cervantes said two people from the encampment were able to move into more permanent housing.

“The way that we look at is if we have 380 people sheltering outdoors, we need to figure out 380 individual solutions based on their needs for mental health or chemical support,” Tincher said. “… I think for a lot of people, there’s so much trauma that has happened in their life that there’s also a piece of mustering the energy to say, ‘OK, I’m ready to give it another shot.’”

St. Paul has also been working with a nonprofit organization to ensure food is distributed daily to people at encampments, Tincher said.

Places where homeless people used to spend their days, such as drop-in centers and public libraries, have also been closed. That’s what officials say led groups of homeless individuals to hang out in Mears Park earlier in the summer.

The city’s response was initially focused on social service agencies offering outreach and some police presence, but as the groups grew larger, there were more calls about assaults, drug dealing and overdoses - “it became unmanageable,” said Senior Cmdr. Jeremy Ellison, who supervises the area that includes downtown.

Ellison said police began arresting people who they saw “coming in and taking advantage” of homeless people by preying on addictions. Police have had a regular police presence in Mears Park since the end of July, according to Ellison. He said there are still some homeless people who spend time in the park, but there’s been an overall transformation.

Homeless people have taken to hanging out in other public places and drug dealers have followed in some cases, leading to police being stationed in those areas to deter the activity, Ellison said.

The city is hiring downtown ambassadors - they’ll be picking up trash, and able to provide people with basic information about where they can find a bathroom or someone to talk with about getting help - and should be on the streets in the coming weeks, Cervantes said.

St. Paul is also looking into partnering with a social service provider to open a daytime space where homeless people can take showers, do laundry and meet with case managers, Tincher said.

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