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Andrea Hinderaker considered a career in agribusiness. Later, she became a pastor. But after joining Peace House in Minneapolis, Hinderaker said working with people who are homeless "grabbed my heart."

She now leads St. Paul's Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART), created in late 2021 to address an unprecedented rise in homeless encampments in the city. Her team, which works out of the city's Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI), connects unsheltered residents with services and shelter.

Eye On St. Paul recently talked with Hinderaker about her background, her work and her goals. This interview was edited for length.

Q: Tell me about you.

A: I have been in the Twin Cities area for about 12 years. My education is not anywhere in this field. I went to school for agribusiness. I managed a small dairy farm. But this is where life took me. When this position came about, I was asked to apply. It couldn't be a better fit, I don't think.

Q: What turned you on to this work?

A: I grew up in poverty, my family struggled. I had a primary parent who struggled with persistent mental illness. So I felt the stigma of poverty and mental illness in my home and in my community. I sort of lived with the philosophy of doing the least amount of harm in the world. That's who I am in a nutshell.

Ultimately where I am in my life today is a culmination of my love for manual labor and a belief that a person should go to bed exhausted because they did the most they could with their entire being. And just knowing that beautiful things can happen if we, as a community, find compassion.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Q: And what brought you to the Twin Cities?

A: I got married years ago [since divorced and remarried] and he was from the Twin Cities. I was uncertain about what I wanted to do. My family encouraged me to think about ministry because really it was my passion for people. I went to seminary, got a master's in divinity, and I pastored a church for two years [but] I thought, "I don't want to be the person who has to stand up and try to convince people to love people. I want to let my actions in the world inspire other people to love people."

Q: You now lead HART. What does that entail?

A: I am the coordinator. I have an DSI inspector and an outreach worker. The system works pretty fluidly. We get observations from community members. A DSI inspector goes out every morning [to encampments]. Then the outreach worker goes out and does the deep dive to make a change in each person's life. My job is to bring it all together, but also to respond to the community. I'm sort of a neighborhood therapist. I understand the investment of the businesses in the area. I say, "I hear you, and also this is why you're seeing more of it. And these are the things that can change that."

Q: Finding a home for shelters or drop-in centers is difficult. How do you balance neighborhood and business concerns with the need for places where homeless people can go?

A: It's hard. It's hard to be in that middle place where you say, "I understand it's challenging to have people outside your business all the time but also there is something [day centers] that can release some of that tension." And that is a really hard sell.

What I try to tell most people is the answer isn't having [just] one location. Human nature is we want choices. But the unsheltered folks have maybe two. Having opportunities to provide a space for folks is key. We need options.

Q: It seems there are always going to be people who refuse to go to shelters. Does that reinforce your point?

A: It does. We are always going to have in the community people who are going to push the limits a little bit. We all have people who are in the community who just aren't going to quite fit in the box. The only thing that differentiates [homeless] folks from your wacky neighbor that does all this crazy stuff in their yard is the home. I feel like we do have to come to a place — St. Paul particularly — where we have options for folks.

At some point, we have to decide as a community, where sometimes if something isn't pretty, or is uncomfortable, it's also OK. Right? But I don't think we should have encampments with 10, 20 people where the community is sort of held hostage, because in the city we are all entitled to these spaces.

Q: When do you let something go and when do you have to change it right now?

A: If there is a safety concern. No one should feel like they're in danger.

Q: Will we get to the point where we'll have places for everyone to live?

A: If a person hasn't experienced deep poverty, and then experienced what it takes to climb out of it with community alongside you, you wouldn't believe it's possible. I personally have experienced it in my family. We're doing the hard work for when that day happens. I am optimistic that other changes can happen if we empower people and believe in people and acknowledge them as human beings. Then doors we didn't know were there will open for them.