It’s ironic that we are having this conversation today,” said Seneca Krueger, Community Program Manager with Community Medical Services.
That’s because, that day had one of St. Paul’s homeless encampments being closed and cleaned by the City’s Department of Safety and Inspections.
Krueger was quick to point out how different St. Paul’s approach to closing an encampment is to that of other cities in the Metro.
“In Minneapolis, the police department shows up in force and blocks off streets,” she explained about her experience working with closing homeless encampments on the other side of the river.
In St. Paul, however, the City takes a completely different way of doing things. According to Andrea Hinderaker, the Coordinator of the Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART) for the City of St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspection, they have a much more intensive, proactive approach.
“We’ve been out all week helping people pack and finding housing,” she said. “We were there today to wake people up, identify what is important to them and set it off to the side.”
This approach grew out of the peak number of homeless encampments the city had during the COVID pandemic. Hinderaker said that, because of additional funding flowing to the city and county during that time, there was an illusion that St. Paul had “fixed homelessness” by providing additional shelters in the community.
“When COVID funding ended, we needed to come up with a way that we weren’t just going to scatter people,” said Hinderaker.
The solution, she said, was for city staff and partners to go into those spaces and meet everyone there with the intent to provide services to whoever wanted them.
“We were able to reunite families, we got people into housing, got people treatment,” Hinderaker said.
Hinderaker said that, after their first foray into this people-centered approach to engaging with homeless encampments, it is the model the City decided to use going forward.
She said that, while not everyone takes them up on services they are able to offer, after four days of being on site and talking to people, the situation is far less adversarial.
When it comes to a closure, even people who aren’t taking advantage of services are still afforded care and compassion. HART Team members will help people in the encampments pack, find storage for their things and even find them transportation.
“The storage and transportation piece is very important,” said Krueger. “People have important things.”
Despite their best efforts, however, Hinderaker said that just working for the City puts her and her team on the back foot because of inherent distrust of government.
“Working with partners gives us credibility,” she said.
Their list of community partners includes Community Medical Services, a soon-to-open low-barrier walk-in opioid clinic, Listening House, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Meridian Health and others providing services like treatment, healthcare, housing, translation and even pop-up clinics.
The HART team isn’t just providing services for those experiencing homelessness, they are also providing training and education for property owners and the business community. Hinderaker said that, too often, businesses will just chase people experiencing homelessness off their property, only to displace them to another site. She said that by providing building managers, owners and security with education and resources, it allows the HART Team to be more effective.
“Just moving people off your site isn’t compassionate,” Hinderaker said. “Allow us to find them, provide them with resources and move them in a better direction.”
“Just ask, ‘how can I help you?’,” Krueger added. “Community members having a conversation can lead to compassion.”
“We don’t have a shortage of parks, but we also don’t have a common understanding of who can be there,” said Hinderaker. “If we are shooing people out of every public space, there is not compassion in that.”
Hinderaker said that the effort is bigger than just her team and the community partners, but encompasses every city department, with a regular check-in each Wednesday to coordinate services and resources.
“Because we build relationships, we can pause systems,” she said.
Those systems include the St. Paul Police Department, which has six dedicated officers assigned to work with HART, two in each of the three districts. Hinderaker said having the same officers involved has built consistency and relationships. She said that, in her 18 months with the City, the police have only arrested two people during their outreach.
“One was someone with an extensive warrant who went voluntarily, the second was someone with severe mental health issues who they wanted to provide the opportunity to find help,” Hinderaker said. “Their approach was more about compassion than regulation.”
“How do we destigmatize these people, who are so stigmatized and so vulnerable?” Krueger added.
Despite their success, it is not to say that the HART Team does not still have major barriers to their work.
“Shelters are by and large full, there are no couples shelters and women’s shelters are always full,” Hinderaker said. “Family shelters have a wait list,” Krueger added.
Hinderaker said that, because of the struggles with the shelter system, camping provides an option for couples and families to stay together when they are experiencing homelessness.
“We really need to understand the community, not just for couples. People who have helped them feel safe and alive and sharing resources,” said Krueger. “Everyone has a role in those community spaces.”
“More than ever before, I want to assure you if your loved one has disappeared because of addiction, there are people loving them until they are ready to come home,” Hinderaker added.
Hinderaker said that the City’s approach to homeless encampments comes down to compassion.
“If there are people living in parks and that bothers you, that isn’t illegal. If there is a crime, call the police,” she said. “We are trying to find the balance between compassion and regulation.”
Learn more about the HART team stpaul.gov/departments/safety-inspections/report-concern/homeless-assistance-response-team