St. Paul set to close encampment above I-35E, relocate around 80 people

One of the tents at an encampment in St. Paul.
One of the tents at the large encampment near Interstate 35E and downtown St. Paul on Saturday. The city plans to clear out the encampment Thursday.
Nina Moini | MPR News

Updated: 12:05 p.m.

The city of St. Paul plans to clear a large tent encampment Thursday, as it continues to try to find places for people to stay as the weather worsens.

The tent encampment of nearly 80 people below Cathedral Hill stretches along a railing above Interstate 35E.

Ricardo Cervantes has watched the encampment grow for weeks. The head of St. Paul’s department of safety and inspections said it’s by far the biggest encampment in the city.

“We’ve given them notice that this is one of the encampments we are concerned about, there are health risks and also safety risks in regards to some of the behavior.”

Cervantes and St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher handed out snacks on Friday as they let people know the tents will be cleared soon.

Tincher said last year the city worked directly with at most 30 people at one time without homes who were staying outside, trying to connect them with caseworkers and find housing and support for them. Since COVID-19, the city has tracked more than 10 times last year’s number, or 380 people across the city.

Officials believe more are sleeping outside as shelters cut access to beds to comply with social distancing. Even before the pandemic, the city needed more affordable housing for people earning less than $30,000 a year.

One man visiting a friend’s tent took an apple from the deputy mayor.

The man, who said he did not want to give his name, spent a few months outside, but now has a place nearby at Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground. He said he knows of people who choose to stay outside.

“Half of the people are out here because there is no visitation in either of those two buildings [of Higher Ground] and being so close in a community, people date each other.”

As of last week, there were enough shelter beds for all the people from the encampment along I-35E. But some may just move to other encampments. The city will also provide transportation to anyone asked to leave.

Two people in their masks talk with people outside.
Ricardo Cervantes, director of St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections, and Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher talk with people living in tents at the city's largest encampment Saturday.
Nina Moini | MPR News

There are no immediate plans to clear other encampments, the next largest of which has about 20 people. Many camps are small and counted even if only one tent is there.

Cervantes said the city and Ramsey county are using a total of $26 million in federal funds authorized by the CARES Act. The city hopes to create 100 more shelter beds by November. He did not say where the beds would be.

Tincher said that beyond giving people a place to sleep, the city aims to provide better mental and chemical health resources.

As the city officials were leaving, one man living in a tent said he doesn’t intend to leave his space before the deadline. He was hoping a caseworker who had visited would not lose track of him. Her name was Elizabeth, and that was all he could remember.

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