Most people have never been to Currie Avenue, a short street wedged in between the freeway and the Greyhound bus terminal in downtown Minneapolis.
But in the past few months, a growing number of people, including the long-term homeless and those newly hit hard by the recession, are ending up here, housed in increasingly crowded conditions in the city’s two largest shelters for single adults.
“Right now we’re looking at a shelter system that is full to capacity,” Dominick Bouza, operations director for the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, said.
Harbor Light usually houses between 425 and 450 people a night, but in the past few weeks, those numbers have risen to more than 500. Next door, at Catholic Charities’ Secure Waiting, all 251 beds have been full for months. The block has the highest concentration of homeless people in the Twin Cities.
Shelter workers fear that if the recession worsens, existing shelters will be insufficient to house the newly homeless. “If 3M or Target lays off a few thousand workers and five hundred people show up at our doors all of a sudden, we won’t be able to handle it,” Secure Waiting coordinator George Terrell said.
Harbor Light’s second floor men’s shelter recently ran out of mats. About ten people on any given night have just a blanket to sleep on–and even those are in rough shape. On a recent visit, shelter workers folded worn gray blankets with large holes. “Everything is in short supply,” Bouza said.
As the number of people sleeping at Harbor Light grew over the past few months, the number of inches between the mats shrank. People now sleep on mats pressed right up against each other. “We’re using every bit of space we can,” Bouza said.
On the women’s floor, people sleep in the hallways. Carrie, a 45-year-old homeless woman who declined to give her last name, said that it’s hard to get any sleep because the hallway lights stay on all night. “It’s horrible up there,” she said. Still, she said, it’s preferable to sleeping outside. “I don’t know what I’d do without it,” she said.
Shelter workers are also allowing people to sleep in the chapel inside Harbor Light. But in the past few weeks, even the chapel has filled up. A new chapel is under construction next door. The last available bit of space–the lobby–now functions as a makeshift warming station in the middle of the night. A few dozen folding chairs are set up and people come in for an hour or two to nap and escape the cold.
Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center. The new chapel, still under construction, is on the right in the photo. (Photo by Dave Underhill)
Despite the crowded conditions, Salvation Army is reticent to set an exact capacity number, as this would mean having to turn people away. Harbor Light administrator Bill Miller said that the shelter has a responsibility to keep people off of the streets in the middle of winter, even if this includes housing people inside the chapel. “We try not to make it a habit, but it’s become a habit,” he said.
Some homeless advocates argue that while the Salvation Army has good intentions, the shelter’s refusal to turn people away has a downside. “If you would stop cramming people in, the community would have to respond,” Monica Nilsson, director of street outreach for St. Stephen’s Human Services, said. “Right now, the city turns a blind eye because nobody wants to address the fact that if we set a limit, then we’d probably have to open more shelters.”
Next door at Catholic Charities’ Secure Waiting, residents pay four dollars a night for a bunk bed and a locker on the second floor. Although each bunk is separated by only about two feet, the conditions seem spacious compared to the first floor, where 125 men sleep on mats.
Every night, four or five new people show up at Secure Waiting seeking shelter, many of them victims of job loss or foreclosures from their rental property. “It’s different people,” Terrell said. “We’re getting the guys with the deer in the headlights look. They’re totally lost.”
Despite the increase in homelessness, advocates argue that creating more shelters is not the solution. Instead, they say, more funding should be provided for a combination of transitional, supportive, and permanent housing.
“Shelters are horrible places,” Catholic Charities director of communications Rebecca Lentz said. “We run shelters because the alternative is having people die on the streets.”
Catholic Charities plans to open a new housing facility, the Monsignor J. Jerome Boxleitner Place, within the next two years on Glenwood Avenue one block away. The building will replace Secure Waiting and will include 74 permanent single resident occupancy (SRO) units, in addition to 200 emergency shelter beds. Tracy Berglund, director of Housing and Emergency Services for Catholic Charities, said that the agency expects to fill up the SRO units quickly.
In the meantime, shelter providers are exploring short-term solutions. Several providers attended a Hennepin County Emergency Preparedness Division meeting last week to discuss how to house people during a disaster. But providers said that the meeting focused more on one-time catastrophes. Tim Turnbull, director of the Emergency Preparedness Division, said that his agency is not equipped to address ongoing overcrowding, but could provide short-term relief if the temperature plummets and all shelters are full. “There’s going to have to be some pretty significant reasons to open this up,” he said.
Homeless advocates also worry about the long-term implications of opening new, even temporary shelters. Many point to Secure Waiting as an example. The shelter started out as a temporary solution to an increase in homelessness in the mid-90s. The homeless sat in chairs overnight in the Hennepin County Government Center and other government buildings downtown. At first, the idea was that the shelters would eventually have more room and Secure Waiting could be closed.
But the number of people sitting on chairs all night grew from 50 to 100. “It was embarrassing to the city and county to have one hundred poor people pouring out in the business community at seven AM,” Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless policy advocate Patrick Wood said.
In 1996, at the request of the city of Minneapolis, Catholic Charities purchased the building on Currie Avenue to house Secure Waiting. Over fifteen years later, the shelter is full every night with people who are suffering from mental illness or chemical dependency, who work low-wage jobs, or who simply cannot locate affordable housing. Some people have been sleeping there for years. “It’s called Secure Waiting,” Wood said, “But waiting for what?”
Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.