Seeking solutions for homelessness as winter looms

Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith, coordinator and resident of the Lake Harriet encampment. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Michelle Smith has created a comfortable community on the shores of Lake Harriet, but she’s ready to leave.

When she obtained the Park Board’s first permit for an encampment in late July, she did so with the aim of finding residents a permanent housing solution. Now Smith, who both lives in and coordinates the Lake Harriet encampment, may be close to accomplishing her goal.

A local real estate broker reached out to Smith after reading about the Lake Harriet encampment in the news and offered his help locating a site that can be used as permanent supportive housing. Now the group, called Project Back to Home, is fundraising to put a down payment on a property that will house the dozen residents of the encampment and create a coopera- tive model to help people get out of homelessness.

They’ve raised about $5,000 toward a $90,000 goal and are looking at sites across the Twin Cities. Smith said she’s feeling optimistic.

“Maybe it was all worth it,” she said.

As winter approaches, there is a sense of urgency to find ways to get the estimated 1,000 unsheltered residents of Minneapolis off the street and into safe, warm environments.

New models, like Smith’s, are emerging, and additional shelter space is being built, but all those efforts might not be enough to ensure the city’s unsheltered have roofs over their heads when the snow begins to fall.

Minneapolis parks have hosted homeless encampments throughout the summer. Commissioners voted to declare all parkland a “refuge’’ for unsheltered people in June but implemented restrictions on the size and number of encampments and created a permit system after a site at Powderhorn Park swelled in size and drew safety concerns for nearby neighborhoods. Since then park staff and police have forcibly evicted residents of encampments at parks like Powderhorn,

Kenwood and, most recently, Peavey Field — clearing camps with bulldozers and prompting protests over tactics that demonstrators have denounced as heavy-handed.

Today, there are about 340 tents scattered around 22 parks. But the Park Board resolu- tion calls for encampments to be gone “before cold weather arrives.” There’s no date attached to that designation, according to a Park Board spokesperson, but as permits are renewed every 14 days, the Park Board will stop issuing them when forecasts consistently project weather in the 40s and 30s. As soon as late October, those residents will need a new place to stay.

New efforts

One emerging solution is the Indoor Villages project, a collaborative effort to create around 100 “tiny homes” in an old warehouse space in the North Loop. The coalition around Indoor Villages emerged during the civil unrest following George Floyd’s death in late May, when there was a push to get unsheltered people off the street, according to Sheila Delaney, a navigator who works to help people find housing.

They wanted to provide housing that didn’t require jumping hoops and started with 50 rooms at the Midtown Sheraton, but the crowd at the hotel grew quickly and the situation was difficult to stabilize, she said. The group transitioned to helping those staying at Powderhorn Park, but was looking for an indoor, longer-term solution when they connected with people working on the Envision Community tiny home project and decided to pursue that model.

In tiny homes, units are built 30 at a time around a community hub that has shared common spaces and offices for service providers to help residents, Delaney said. The homes are private and lockable so people can secure their belongings and services will be culturally competent and trauma-informed. Residents will have 30-day agreements that can be renewed.

The tiny homes needed a site, and the group first approached Minneapolis about placing the homes inside the former Kmart on Lake Street, which the city recently bought with plans to eventually demolish it and reconnect Nicollet Avenue. City officials were receptive, Delaney said, but ultimately the group decided investing in a space it would ultimately lose didn’t make sense. Finding a suitable space and an agreeable landlord was hard, but the group found both in a former warehouse space at 1251 N. Washington Ave.

What began as a lofty goal now appears to be on the verge of fruition. With a mix of public and private dollars coming in and support from local officials, Indoor Villages believes its planned two-year pilot will get the green light.

“I feel very confident we’re going to get the funding we need,” Delaney said.

Once the lease and funding are finalized, construction should go quickly. The tiny homes are essentially enclosed efficiency apartments constructed from metal by a Seattle-based company called Pallet Shelter.

“We really wanted the solution to be ready for winter,” she said.

White Earth Nation has agreed to partner with the pilot project and will provide housing support and help people sign up for Medicaid. If the pilot is successful, the tribe is interested in continuing the model going forward. There will be well-paid jobs at Indoor Villages, Delaney said, and the group will try to hire people who have experience living on the streets.

Avivo will be the main service provider at Indoor Villages, with Whittier-based Simpson Housing serving as a fiscal partner and adviser. Steve Horsfield, executive director at Simpson, said the project is helping to build capacity in the region in a way that meets people where they are.

“Low-barrier, service-rich shelter is a really big first step to getting folks into housing,” Horsfield said.

State Rep. Aisha Gomez (DFL-62B) has been involved in trying to find solutions for unsheltered people in the city and was one of the first people Delaney called when the group was trying to find solutions for unsheltered residents.

“People want to help,” Gomez said, citing the generosity of those serving the encampments and the support the Kingfield neighborhood has shown to residents at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. “There are a lot of resources and human power here.”

The first-term representative is not optimistic that an October special session of the Legislature will pass a bonding bill, which advocates were hoping would bring more dollars to affordable housing and new models like Indoor Villages.

She believes the area’s homelessness crisis is a symptom of an economy that doesn’t function for low-income people and that the Legislature should amend the tax code to pay for a statewide rental assistance bill and stop perpetuating disparities by giving more tax breaks to mortgage holders than renters.

“We need to not shy away from saying the economy is working well for a small amount of people and we’re going to ask those people to help out more,” Gomez said.

Shelter capacity

COVID-19 has changed the way shelters like Simpson operate. For the past six months, Simpson has been running a 24/7 service, and new funding from Hennepin County
will allow it to continue those extended hours through 2021. The county is also helping fund two new diversion staff members who will help people find housing solutions to avoid the shelter system altogether.

Early in the pandemic, the number of shelter beds was reduced to ensure proper social distancing. Simpson typically had 66 beds, but the number dropped to the low 40s at one point. Now that the shelter owns the entire Simpson United Methodist Church, it has more room to spread out capacity. Currently, staff are serving about 50 guests and are preparing for the winter months by adding 20 more beds for female guests. Thankfully, Horsfield said, there have been no major outbreaks at any shelter and centers are increasing capacity as they learn how to cope with the virus.

“All the operators have been feeling that pressure to do something more,” he said.

Simpson leads the adult shelter connection office in Hennepin County and assigns about 900 shelter beds throughout the metro. When the pandemic hit, the county bought up hotel spaces for vulnerable shelter residents and today there are 200 more people in shelter than ever before, Horsfield said. But there’s more pressure, too, with the pandemic leaving many people out of work and at risk of losing housing when the statewide eviction ban eventually lifts.

More shelters are coming online. The Hennepin County Board approved $3.6 million to purchase two properties to house unsheltered people on Sept. 29 using CARES Act funding. The buildings, the 35-room Metro Inn Motel at 57th & Lyndale and the 23-unit dormitory owned by the Volunteers of America in Stevens Square, will replace about 60 leased units from hotels and give the county its own shelter space in the future.

The American Indian Development Corporation is constructing a new culturally specific shelter in South Minneapolis that will house up to 75 people; it should be complete by December. Across the metro, 200 more shelter beds will be added as winter approaches, Horsfield said.

But he doesn’t think it will be enough. Right now, about 1,000 people in Minneapolis are sleeping outside. When the winter comes, about a third of those people will be able to find housing with relatives, a third will be accommodated through shelters and other programs and a third will need a different solution.

Finding a home

At Lake Harriet, Smith is hoping to channel the generosity neighbors have shown the encampment into a viable model for getting people out of homelessness. She’s been disappointed not to receive government funding but believes private individuals and organizations will get the group to its $90,000 fundraising goal.

The Project Back to Home group is looking at an old church in St. Paul and a couple of large older homes that could be split into apartments. The plan is to raise enough money for a down payment and a first year’s mortgage payment and, after a year rent free, ask residents to chip in for housing payments. In that first year, people will be connected to job training and other services. Many encampment residents have been homeless for years, Smith said, and giving them stable shelter is the biggest step to getting their lives to a better place. She hopes to create a cooperative housing model that lasts for years to come.

With the weather getting colder, she’s optimistic that the group will move into a building by the end of October, and not need to scramble for space when the Park Board stops issuing permits.

“We’re hoping to be out of here at that point,” Smith said.