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St. Paul set to open winter shelter, close homeless camp

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Two tents sat in the woods on top of a hill in St. Paul, Minn.
Two tents sat in the woods on top of a hill in St. Paul above a homeless encampment that was being cleared out on Oct. 11, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

St. Paul and Ramsey County officials will open their emergency winter shelter Thursday, weeks earlier than last year, as authorities prepare to close a homeless encampment by Cathedral Hill.

With the shelter open, the city is expected to move residents out of the increasingly visible camp, which sits along a strip overlooking Interstate 35E and is home to about two dozen people.  

For the past few months, state and local agencies have come in weekly to clean the site and then let residents return. But with winter approaching, the city is changing course. Some in the encampment may end up at the emergency shelter; others aren't sure where they will go. 

"We're going to be encouraging folks to connect with services to find more permanent housing, and we're going to ask that they not come back to that site," said Ricardo Cervantes, director of safety and inspections for St. Paul.

This will be the second straight year for the winter shelter, located in the basement of the Ramsey County Government Center. Its hours will be expanded as will its capacity — 64 beds compared to 50 last year. It will run through April. 

Unlike other shelters in the city, like Higher Ground and Union Gospel Mission — which are typically filled to capacity — access to the government center site is by referral only. It's meant to be a last resort for homeless people during the harsh winter weather, said Ramsey County Board Chair Jim McDonough.

"It really is intended to help with the issues in the skyways [and] on our transit system," McDonough said. "When public safety police, transit police, outreach workers in the community come across an individual that is not sheltered for that night that they can refer them or bring them to that site."

McDonough said he hoped that the county would only need an emergency shelter for one year but that high levels of homelessness and increasing visibility forced officials to open the space again. 

"The encampment did bring some visibility to the general public," McDonough said of the site near I-35E. "Certainly, it's not always acknowledged or recognized or even understood how large our homeless population is."

In Minnesota, overall homelessness has decreased 8 percent since 2014, when the state started a new program to end homelessness. But the number of unsheltered homeless people —  those camping and living outside — has increased nearly 40 percent in that time, according to the state's housing agency.

McDonough said the issue of homelessness comes down to a lack of affordable housing in the area. 

"Until we really can address affordable housing and long-term affordable housing solutions. We're going to continue to have to deal with the crisis on the streets," he said. 

Even with the emergency shelter opening, some residents at the camp by Cathedral Hill aren't sure where they will go if they are kicked out. 

Randle Green, 57, has lived at the camp for the past month or so. He said he and other campers were told to clear out before November. 

Nikko Komarov, 21, said he has camped at the site since last spring, after he was kicked out of a shelter for his involvement in a fight. Like others at the site, he isn't sure about his plans for this winter.

"They're in the same boat as I am. They don't know what to do," Komarov said of those at the camp. "A lot of people out here don't want to be out here all winter."