See more of the story

Maplewood officials dismantled a homeless camp last week in a city park they said was showing signs of eroding sanitary and safety conditions — including a nearby drowning and a machete attack.

The city is one of several east metro jurisdictions struggling to manage growing homeless camps this summer under Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency executive order, which requires them to accommodate people displaced when camps are removed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Conditions at dozens of homeless encampments in Minneapolis city parks have prompted impassioned public debate this week. But St. Paul officials said they too are monitoring 84 homeless campsites with an estimated 270 residents, a tenfold increase from last summer.

“We are at levels now we have never experienced in St. Paul before,” said Ricardo Cervantes, St. Paul’s director of safety and inspections, saying they counted about 28 people at encampments during last year’s peak.

Maplewood officials said they initially tried to maintain safety and order at the camp in Legacy Park, near a Ramsey County Library branch and the Maplewood Mall. They provided food, portable toilets and a hand-washing station. Police made regular welfare checks, and nonprofit case managers visited the camp.

But conditions deteriorated, they said. There were 27 police calls to the site, culminating in a drowning death and the machete attack during a turf dispute among camp dwellers.

“We were trying to be as compassionate as we possibly could. It evolved into a dangerous situation for everyone,” said Mayor Marylee Abrams.

The mayor called it a “heartbreaking situation for cities not equipped to deal with it. We don’t have a health and human services department. We don’t have social workers on staff. That is not in the city’s wheelhouse.”

The city paid for hotel rooms for about a half dozen people displaced from the camp, many of whom will now be moving into a temporary St. Paul shelter being set up by Ramsey County. City crews cleared two dumpsters full of debris from the encampment, which had a population of about 15 at its peak.

Falling under the radar

So far, St. Paul officials have relocated only two homeless camps this summer that were perilously close to construction sites, including one under the Robert Street Bridge.

But they are monitoring camps for conditions that could prompt further action.

“We are operating under the governor’s executive order. We are adhering to that,” Cervantes said.

“We are only contemplating moving individuals if there is an immediate risk to their health and safety.”

St. Paul Police Commander Jeremy Ellison said officers were working to maintain safety in and around camps by arresting individuals selling drugs and preying on the vulnerable. Last week, police arrested about 10 people for selling drugs in Mears Park in downtown St. Paul, he said.

“We are not trying to criminalize homelessness. We understand a lot of people need help,” Ellison said.

Meanwhile, Ramsey County leaders continued to scramble to increase the county’s homeless shelter capacity. In response to the COVID crisis, the county this spring set up additional temporary shelters and rented hundreds of hotel rooms for the homeless.

In May, county leaders sent a letter to the state seeking help to set up an additional 200 shelter beds so they could offer alternatives to the swelling homeless camps.

“We feel completely tapped out,” said Max Holdhusen, Ramsey County’s housing stability manager.

That help hasn’t come, but Holdhusen said the county is still in talks with the state and has received some administrative support. Using its own resources and federal COVID aid, Ramsey County added as many as 115 new shelter beds this month.

It’s a particularly challenging time for the homeless, said David Katzenmeyer, program supervisor with the nonprofit People Incorporated.

Ramsey County contracts with the nonprofit, which deploys case managers to help homeless people connect with services.

Homeless shelters have been thinned out to stop the spread of COVID, meaning fewer beds for those in need. Formerly popular stops for many homeless people at libraries, fast food restaurants and shopping centers, are now closed or severely restricted.

Katzenmeyer and his team have spent time working with people in camps in St. Paul, Maplewood and other spots tucked in wooded areas.

He said many of the suburban homeless population grew up or lived in the area and want to stay, even though it’s often more difficult to access services there.

“In the suburbs, we see a lot of people living in their vehicles and they really fall under the radar,” Katzenmeyer said.

Meeting basic needs

He said the governor’s order halting the dismantling of camps has made it easier to establish and maintain connections with homeless individuals.

Generally, Katzenmeyer said, his team sees better outcomes persuading homeless people to seek services when camps are not dismantled.

“Clearing encampments does not resolve someone’s homelessness, and often makes it harder for people to meet their basic needs and access resources,” Katzenmeyer said.

“People have a right to exist somewhere. Where can they go when shelter and housing resources aren’t meeting the need?”

St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said the city, partnering with Ramsey County, is focused on increasing shelter capacity by winter.

It’s lobbying for more state aid and working with a real estate broker to locate possible sites for new shelters.

City leaders fear numbers could swell further when the federal $600-per-week increase in unemployment benefits expires later this summer.

More than 70,000 St. Paul residents have filed for unemployment, and many are at risk of losing housing and joining the homeless ranks.

“We have to have an action plan that sets up how we are going to have enough indoor lower-barrier shelter space to meet the need by November,” Tincher said.