Train to nowhere: Twin Cities light rail becomes home for the homeless
Mattie Grassrope sat quietly in her motorized chair on a cold April evening at the Mall of America's Blue Line rail station. She wasn't waiting for a train. She wasn't going anywhere. This was home for the night.
"It's pretty hard, really hard," Grassrope said of life overnight on the platform. "You got to keep up and stay up and maintain because they will come at you on both sides, and it's scary at night."
She was shoeless, wearing pink socks. Her shoes, she said, had been stolen off her feet.
Grassrope is part of a chronic homeless population living on the Twin Cities light rail system. Authorities estimate some 200 people are using the system for shelter each night and the number is rising at an alarming rate.
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They are people of all backgrounds and ages, said Chris Knutson, who works for the Minneapolis nonprofit St. Stephen's Human Services and checks in regularly with those living on the light rail system.
Some have jobs, kids traveling with them, or are between homes. Without a home, getting a steady job, substance abuse treatment or anything else is nearly impossible.
From 'ones or twos' to hundreds
Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington said the problem has gotten worse since his tenure began in 2012.
"If you were a cop and you worked the system, you recognized it because there were ones or twos out there" but it's "hundreds now at several different platforms," he said. "It has become very noticeable and it's also become increasingly disruptive."
Harrington, a former state lawmaker and St. Paul police chief, said he is in constant talks with city and state officials about how to help the homeless population using the trains, but there continues to be a lack of available shelter space and funding to add shelter beds.
"Being homeless is not illegal, and when we checked, about 85 percent of the homeless do, in fact, have paid fares," he said.
"Now, those paid fares often times come from the social service agencies who have bought them a bus token or a train token so they can ride, because there's no more room at Higher Ground. There's no more room at Union Gospel Mission or one of the other centers," he added.
"So, they are not breaking any law by being on the train and so we said we're not going to take any action against people who are lawfully riding the train."
The chief acknowledged complaints by Metro Transit riders about the conditions of the trains at night but noted the sometimes desperate reality of the homeless who have nowhere safe to go.
"We recognize we're not the best place but we also recognize that for a mom and her kid, it's safe, it's dry, and if somebody's bothering them, the police come right away," he said.
"If the alternative is under a bridge or sleeping in your car," he added, "I am more afraid of her safety and the well-being of those kids than I am about the comfort of a few others."
Beds, sleep, safety
Knutson said the Mall of America stop is popular because it's underground and heated.
He's met Grassrope there before, part of a small group who sit or sleep on the platform, sharing snacks and occasional laughs as mall security walk by every few minutes. Grassrope said she is 53 years old and originally from South Dakota.
"With street outreach, we might talk to the same person 10 times before they give us the time of day," Knutson said.
He said that many people using the light rail line for shelter suffer from a serious lack of sleep, among countless other challenges.
On a recent overnight ridealong, around 1 a.m., it was easy to find dozens of people on the system trying to sleep, some with grimy comforters pulled over their heads.
"The most sleep you're going to get is, you know, 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there," he said. "You're constantly having to worry about who else is on the train. It's noisy, it's bright."
Over the winter, St. Paul opened a temporary 50-bed shelter called the Winter Safe Space, but the $400,000 cost was only funded through March. Safe Space has since closed with no plans to reopen.
The homeless problem is a regional challenge caused by many factors, including the shortage of affordable housing, said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.
"Right now in St. Paul, we have incredibly low vacancy rates, with regard to residential vacancies, we have rents that are high and rising and we've got an aging housing stock," said Carter, who began his term in January.
Carter noted that Catholic Charities is opening what they're calling St. Paul's "opportunity center" in July of 2019.
The downtown housing complex, supported by mostly private donations, will replace an older shelter and provide nearly 200 more units of temporary and permanent housing, with preference given to veterans and young people aging out of foster care.
But the need is greater than that.
"We need to increase our emergency shelter bed capacity and I think we need to do it with smaller shelters, 50-bed shelters, things like that, so people aren't turned off by the shelter system."
Knutson said he went to college for advertising until he felt called to serve people in some of the most dire situations.
"Well, I mean, somebody's got to do it," he said. "People that are not in shelter are not going to get the services that people in shelter do, unless there are teams like street outreach that are out meeting people where they're at."
And for now, that's on the train.
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