At the front line of the fight to find shelter

Todd Welvon sweeps the grass of the area around his tent to clean it up. “We’re just homeless people that are struggling. Some of us are still aching of pain over our poverty. Me, I’m out here because I lost my son, I’ve been numbing the pain,” he said on Aug. 17, 2018. Christopher Juhn for MPR News

There’s a homeless encampment in Minneapolis and if there’s one thing politicians don’t want, it’s evidence of an epidemic.

Someone pitched a tent near the Little Earth housing complex about three months ago, and it’s growing, MinnPost reports.

Social workers set up portable toilets and wash stations. Volunteers pass out food and clean up trash and that’s dangerous because many of the homeless are addicted, and needles are everywhere.

One resident of the camp, Caryn Pacheco, says she’s exhausted by sharing stories with council members and city officials.

“Just finding a bed is not going to solve this issue,” city coordinator Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde tells MinnPost.

“How do you get sober and try to live a good life if you ain’t got nothing there, you ain’t got a roof over your head?” a Native American community member told MPR News.

Last Thursday, Mayor Jacob Frey unveiled plans to eliminate the camp.

“Housing is a right, and the city has an obligation to step up and we are stepping up,” Frey said at a news conference. “We will be working to ensure that those present at the encampment receive every service they need.”

Frey said an off-site facility is being constructed now, which will include bathrooms and showers, along with a sheltered area where people can find resources to get temporary housing, MPR’s Nina Moini reported.

The camp will be eliminated by September 30, the mayor said.

How’s that going to work? In today’s Star Tribune, a letter writer questions the effort.

Ethna (Essie) McKiernan, an outreach worker, writes that she laughed out loud when she heard Frey’s promise.

I am an outreach worker to the unsheltered homeless — those living in cars, in tents, in abandoned buildings, under bridges, riding trains all night. Even if they wanted a shelter bed, there is not space — and that’s another urgent discussion needed. I know what it takes to lead someone to housing, and it’s multiple steps: the establishment of trust, first; the appointment-making and transporting for paperwork to be signed off on by a medical doctor; frequently arranging mental-health help for struggles caused by years of living on the street; the administration of a county assessment measuring the vulnerability of the person experiencing homelessness (approximately 1 to 1½ hours — it is the gateway into housing in Hennepin County); the coordination with a housing provider once a housing referral is made (three days to two years, depending on the score of the assessment); etc. This is a bare outline.

Mayor Frey, if you really believe housing for 120 can be accomplished by the end of September, please provide us 30 more outreach workers for a period of 90 days, plus 25 assessors to administer the VI-SPDAT (Vulnerability Index — Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool) for 90 days. The jobs can be advertised as such. With a minimum of one week’s training by the small number of outreach workers in Minneapolis (10 to 12 only!), we may be able to see over 50 percent housed by the end of November. Without the resources necessary to accomplish this, your promise is an impossible one to keep.

And I also invite and welcome you to accompany me on a morning outreach shift — all over Minneapolis — for shared insights and a conversation.

Cities all over America are facing the same problem. The people on the front line of providing help are quite often those you wouldn’t initially expect: Librarians.