St. Paul firefighters responding to a blaze at a homeless encampment Wednesday morning discovered one person injured and another dead among the debris — the third death of a homeless person in the capital city this winter.
City officials have spent months grappling with a spike in unsheltered homelessness and, citing risks of uncontrolled fires and exposure, are racing to close some of the largest encampments and relocate people into a new network of temporary shelters.
St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said officials believe 179 people are now sleeping outdoors, down from a high of 380 last fall — a drop due, in part, to the city's work to move people into shelters, she said. The three deaths — one at Wednesday's fire and two likely connected to exposure — underscore the urgency of the ongoing work, Tincher said.
"Our goal is we want zero tents and zero individuals sheltering outdoors in St. Paul," she said.
It's slow work, with city staff and nonprofit case workers first connecting with people at encampments days before a closure, helping them figure out shelter options, Tincher said.
Many won't agree to leave the encampment until closing day, she said.
"There is space available," Tincher said. "The goal always is to get folks indoors and get them in a safe, stable space."
The city and Ramsey County, using a mix of federal, state and local funds, have opened several new temporary shelters across the city. Sites include the former Bethesda Hospital, Harriet Island Pavilion, Duluth and Case Recreation Center and one in a vacant dormitory at Luther Seminary.
The blaze on Wednesday morning along Shepard Road between Jackson and N. Sibley streets involved two tents, said St. Paul Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso. One person was found dead. An autopsy is pending. A second person, who suffered burns, was found near the fire scene.
The Fire Department has responded to dozens of calls to encampments this winter, including a larger blaze at a now-closed encampment in downtown St. Paul just a block from City Hall, Mokosso said.
The encampments pose a serious fire risk, especially in the winter, as individuals surrounded by blankets, nylon tents and other debris light fires and heaters to stay warm, Mokosso said. The cause of Wednesday's fire remains under investigation but "there was firewood found at the scene. There were propane tanks found at the scene. There were propane heaters found at the scene," Mokosso said.
Mayor Melvin Carter's office is overseeing encampment closures and relocations, which have divided the City Council. The city allowed encampments throughout summer and fall, providing food, portable toilets and trash pickup. As temperatures dropped and temporary shelters opened, city staff began closures in December.
Several council members have expressed support for the work, saying bringing people inside is the only dignified and safe option in Minnesota.
"It is an extraordinary effort here taking place," Council President Amy Brendmoen said at a council meeting early this month, praising the work of the mayor's office.
Council Members Nelsie Yang and Mitra Jalali have expressed reservations about the encampment closures, calling them "removals" and "evictions."
"Every removal, no matter how gentle, can still feel very hurtful when it isn't entirely voluntarily," Jalali said.
Council Member Jane Prince pushed back on the suggestion that St. Paul should consider creating city-sanctioned tent cities similar to those in Portland and Seattle.
"Leaving people outside in winter in Minnesota is not feasible," Prince said. "It's cruel. That notion that a city-run tent city is anything we want to provide ... I really want us to get rid of this notion."
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Shannon Prather • 612-203-8656