Minneapolis homeless shelters challenged; street life altered

portable toilet and handwashing station
Minneapolis public health has partnered with the Park Board to place a portable toilet and handwashing station on The Mall in Uptown, where there is a small encampment of unsheltered people. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

When officials first started asking people to “stay home” in March, the phrase hit a nerve with staff at Simpson Housing Services in Whittier.

“The folks we serve don’t have a home to stay in,” executive director Steve Horsfield said.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended life for an already unstable population of homeless residents in Minneapolis. With public spaces like libraries closed and Metro Transit no longer operating overnight service, people experiencing homelessness have fewer places to stay and practice good hygiene during the pandemic.

For shelters like Simpson, the coronavirus has drastically changed the model of service. In mid-March, before the governor’s stay-at-home order was issued, the shelter transitioned to a 24/7 operation. Typically, Simpson has people in the shelter from early evening to mid-morning and only offers 24-hour services during extremely cold days in the winter, Horsfield said. 

The shelter also usually has volunteer groups that prepare and serve daily meals to residents, but the groups can’t enter the building during the pandemic. “Having to do away with the volunteer program was a very significant culture shift,” Horsfield said.

Now Simpson is getting catered meal services from Whittier’s Provision Community Cafe, Ebony Turner’s E.T. Delectables and St. Paul-based Corporate Caterers. All three have been good partners offering generous rates, Horsfield said.

Simpson’s normal monthly operating costs are about $60,000 per month, but with 24/7 operation, catered meals and hazard pay for staff, that figure has jumped by more than 85%. The organization has seen a rise in donations during the pandemic, but it has had to alter plans for its annual Art for Shelter fundraiser, which will be held virtually this year with local artists donating several pieces for sale with proceeds going to the shelter starting May 13.

The Hennepin County Board has spent about $2 million moving 287 vulnerable people from shelters and the street into motel spaces during the pandemic. In April, 27 Simpson residents moved into motels through the program, Horsfield said. While it is a relief to have some older and other vulnerable individuals in more secure housing, Horsfield said the fact that hundreds of sick and elderly people are unsheltered shows how deep the housing crisis is in the metro.

“Those are the people for whom our community safety nets are failing,” he said.

Simpson is currently serving about 40 people daily, a number the staff believes can be accommodated while maintaining proper social distancing and monitoring for symptoms.

“Obviously, it’s not perfect,” Horsfield said.

Simpson workers are still placing people in permanent housing, and Horsfield said the organization was able to place about one person per day in a stable home during the first month of the crisis.

He is concerned that the current pandemic is placing that already vulnerable group of recently housed people in a more precarious situation due to job losses. In addition to the shelter, Simpson continues to provide virtual social work to about 400 households of people who’ve been recently housed.

Horsfield spoke at a virtual rally May 8 in support of a $500 million Homes for All bonding bill being proposed in the Legislature this session; the bill is currently working its way through the House of Representatives.

“What’s really needed is housing,” he said. “We don’t have anywhere near what we need in terms of affordable housing to move people into.”

An encampment off Stevens Avenue in Whittier
An encampment off Stevens Avenue in Whittier has not received any sanitation services during the shutdown and a grassroots effort to establish portable toilets and handwashing stations was blocked by city officials. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

On the streets

Encampments of unsheltered people have begun to emerge again this spring across Minneapolis, most notably near the Sabo pedestrian bridge over Highway 55. But there are also encampments near the Midtown Greenway in Southwest, the largest of which has emerged on land controlled by the Minnesota Department of Transportation off Interstate 35W near 28th & Stevens. Other encampments are near the Uptown Transit Station on The Mall and in a wooded area near Lake of the Isles. One of Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency orders surrounding the pandemic initially forbade breaking up encampments but that order has since been lifted.

The Minneapolis Health Department has established handwashing stations throughout the city and has partnered with the Park Board to leave some outdoor restrooms open during the pandemic. In Southwest, only Mueller Park in Lowry Hill East still has open bathrooms, though Whittier Park is also being considered. A new handwashing station and portable toilet was installed on The Mall in Uptown the week of May 9.

Edwin Scherr, 40, a musician who also goes by Elijah the Profit, is unsheltered and has been staying around the Uptown area.

The pandemic has made life more challenging for homeless people in and around Uptown, Sherr said, with fewer places like McDonald’s and the Walker Library open for people to use the restroom. The installation of the portable toilet and handwashing station on The Mall has helped, he said, but the overall access to good hygiene has decreased for unsheltered people during the pandemic.

“If anyone is going to get it, we’re going to get it,” he said.

In some ways, he thinks conditions have improved for unsheltered people because the public is more compassionate and law enforcement is trying to avoid sending people to jail for minor offenses.

“We don’t get persecuted all day for being out here,” he said, explaining that he thinks most people would normally prefer just not to see homeless people.

Right now, he said, he doesn’t have any prospects for stable housing. Finding work is already difficult for unsheltered people, Scherr said, and during the pandemic, with fewer jobs available, it’s been nearly impossible. 

He said most people on the street are good folks trying to survive and improve their situation. “Not everyone is a derelict person out here, some people really are trying to get back to a normal life,” he said.

Residents involved in the Whittier Community Care Group, a mutual aid program that began at the start of the pandemic, raised funds to install two portable toilets and a handwashing station to provide hygiene services to those living at the Stevens Avenue encampment. The group had hoped to bypass bureaucracy to provide basic services, but said they had their permit blocked by the city. The group saw the portable toilets, which cost about $145 per week each, as a simple way to provide assistance to those in need, and they solicited dozens of small donations to fund the initiative on social media.

The city initially issued a permit for the portable toilets in error when an employee mistook the application for an internal request related to hygiene stations for unsheltered people and rescinded the permit after realizing it came from a private group, according to spokesperson Sarah McKenzie. Minneapolis does not typically issue permits for portable toilets in the public right-of-way, she said, but is currently assessing whether to change that policy to allow for this type of request.

Park Board Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6) asked about getting a sanitation station installed near the 28th & Stevens encampment on a call with Minneapolis officials during a May 6 meeting. That land, owned by MnDOT and a private company, is near the 28th Street Tot Lot Park, which is currently closed due to the Interstate 35W construction. 

Heidi Ritchie, a policy aide to Mayor Jacob Frey, said the city wanted to move forward with facilities for the area but has been working through paperwork issues.

“There are a lot of complexities around that,” Ritchie said.