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Homeless advocates count 723 on Minneapolis streets since encampment disbanded

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Randy Flowers remembers being homeless in Minneapolis.
Randy Flowers, 50, sits in the living room of a supportive housing unit in north Minneapolis, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Before moving in a year and a half ago, he lived beneath an overpass in Loring Park, among other places.
Megan Burks | MPR News

Hennepin County will add 50 temporary shelter beds next week and wants to open three more shelters, although they’re not yet funded.

Advocates say a year after the encampment along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis, the problem is worse than before.

“We know based upon our counts that we have more than 700 people who are outside and they literally don’t have any place to go,” said John Tribbett, who manages the Street Outreach Team for St. Stephen’s Human Services.

According to Hennepin County’s last count in July, there were 723 people who were homeless. 

Last year, the camp that housed many Native American residents swelled to more than 200 tents. The city shut it down last December and moved many of the residents to a temporary shelter called a navigation center.

“Last summer there was a lot of talk around the encampment about this emergency. It was extremely frustrating to hear that because the emergency has been existing all along, it’s just that it got concentrated so people were forced to see it,” Tribbett said.   

Tents fill a strip of land near Hiawatha Ave.
The strip of land near Hiawatha Ave. became the largest homeless encampment in the state.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

It’s illegal to camp in Minneapolis, so when an encampment crops up, nearby residents and business owners may call and have it removed. Tribbett said the people living there get 24 hours notice to take their belongings elsewhere, making it difficult to connect people with services. Tribbett said people may also lose IDs, coats and other belongings in the process. 

“I mean they’re already in survival mode — but it’s baseline survival mode, so it keeps people stuck in a repetitive cycle,” Tribbett said.

Q&A with Michelle Gerrard, study director for the Minnesota Homeless Study
by MPR

Randy Flowers, 50, said he was stuck in that cycle for six years. Now he’s living in supportive housing in north Minneapolis paid for by Hennepin County. Before that, he camped beneath an overpass near Loring Park. He remembers what it was like to be told to move.

“It was an insult. It further carved away at my self-esteem as a person. And it’s devastating because 99 percent of the encampments I’ve been in, they’re safe for me,” Flowers said.

Flowers said this displacement, in lieu of permanent solutions, is also a strain on the city and county budgets. “When it gets cold, people are going to go to the hospital and lie so they can be someplace warm for three or four hours. The police are going to be overwhelmed.”

Currently, there are more people experiencing homelessness than there are shelter beds available. A tight housing market makes it tough to get people into permanent housing.  

David Hewitt, director of the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness, is working to change that. In addition to opening the 50 seasonal shelter beds, the county is preparing to spend $2 million soon as part of a $91.5 million proposal to add 1,000 supportive housing units. 

And while not yet funded, Hewitt said he expects a 30-bed shelter for people recuperating from illness and injuries will open in 2021. 

But Hewitt said the shelters will continue to fill up if there isn’t enough permanent housing for people transitioning from homelessness. He said the county is working to bring more affordable housing projects into the region.

In the meantime, encampments are likely to continue popping up. John Tribbett said some may feel they should report them, but cautioned the encampments are “not an emergency situation.

“If you had a neighbor that was somewhat annoying, you didn’t like the color of their house and maybe they dressed strangely in their backyard, that’s not an emergency,” Tribbett said. “The problem isn’t the people that you’re seeing on the street are there, the problem is that they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Correction (Oct. 23, 2019): The county has proposed spending $91.5 million to add 1,000 supportive housing units. An earlier version of this story misstated the projected total cost.