Ten years ago, Robert Wright spent the winter under a bridge on Hennepin Avenue. He lit a candle in a coffee can inside his sleeping bag. He was careful to take off his shoes at night — if his feet became sweaty they could freeze and he’d risk losing toes. He slept outside because he resented shelters that cast him out at 6 a.m. with nowhere to go but the skyway, where people eyed him warily on the way to work. He held a sign on the median and pooled cash with the “Dunwoody Crew,” which bought alcohol by the half-gallon. There were in-house squabbles, he said, but people generally looked out for each other.
“It’s a community,” he said. “When I look back on it, I was crazy.”
That was before St. Stephen’s Street Outreach workers met Wright under the bridge and found him a room in a boarding house. He’s lived in a Longfellow apartment for seven years now.
“This is really cool,” he said, pulling out a set of keys. “This is for the front door. I have my own mailbox. And this is for my bicycle.”
Wright remembers the Dunwoody Crew holding high regard for Jane Bringsthem, known as “Jungle Jane.” On a recent weekday in April, Bringsthem sat on the Hennepin Avenue median drinking vodka from a bottle. When asked where she slept the night before, she pointed to a traffic light.
“Ten feet from the red light,” she said. “We’re alcoholics. We like to drink and we like to sign and we make money. We all take a corner. …We all share. We have to.”
A 10-year plan by the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County didn’t end homelessness as hoped. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that 2,984 people were homeless in 2007 and 3,056 were homeless in 2016. The number peaked at 3,731 in 2014. But much has changed in the past decade.
Homelessness has gone from a fringe issue with a band-aid approach to a mainstream policy issue, said Gail Dorfman, executive director of St. Stephen’s Human Services. Pilot projects have rolled into permanent programs.
Supportive housing providers now collaborate to prioritize housing for people deemed the most vulnerable: long-term homeless and those with a disability. Street outreach workers have become the primary point of contact linking single adults to housing support. Hennepin County Medical Center and Corrections have programs in place to avoid discharging people into homelessness. Massive volunteer-staffed events called Project Homeless Connect have morphed into permanent “opportunity centers” located downtown. Instead of queuing up and entering a lottery for a shelter bed, people can visit St. Olaf Church to reserve a bed for the night.
“It’s much more dignified, and people aren’t scrambling to figure out where they are going to sleep tonight,” Dorfman said.
The “Housing First” model is standard procedure today, but it was a new concept in Hennepin County a decade ago. Individuals with addictions were often expected to enter treatment to become eligible for housing. Now, cleaning up and finding work come at the individual’s own pace with the anchor of stable housing.
“We were one of the first communities to implement it widely,” Dorfman said.
Through intensive case management focused on people who are homeless the longest, the Office to End Homelessness reports that the number of households considered chronically homeless declined from 919 in 2009 to 360 in 2016.
“Quite a dramatic reduction,” said David Hewitt, director of the Office to End Homelessness.
While homeless veterans and the chronically homeless have seen progress in the past decade, youth and families haven’t fared as well.
Hewitt said just over 1,500 family members were homeless in 2007, 2,008 family members were homeless in 2014, and 1,591 family members were homeless last year.* And while the state’s total number of homeless has declined in the past three years, the number of homeless youth has increased 46 percent, according to The Bridge For Youth.
“The biggest challenge is the lack of affordable housing,” Dorfman said.
Affordable housing is one of the big pieces of unfinished business in the city-county plan. Strategies to lessen the risk for landlords who take on homeless tenants were put on the backburner 10 years ago, Hewitt said. Then the recession hit, and the foreclosure crisis created more competition for low-income housing. Rents are rising, and apartments are sitting at historically low vacancy rates.
Homeless advocates said they are losing naturally-occurring affordable housing at places like the 700-unit Crossroads apartments in Richfield. A new owner is renovating the apartments, raising the rents and declining subsidized rent vouchers, according to the Star Tribune.
“When you think of the energy that goes into trying to raise money at the Capitol for 1,000 units — how quickly it can vanish in one fell swoop with one developer and one complex,” said Monica Nilsson, who launched the St. Stephen’s Street Outreach team and now works as a consultant. “It’s almost like our eyes were off the ball in one corner of the city while we were focused on another corner.”
Although the city and county met a goal to find 5,000 new housing opportunities, it’s not enough, particularly for youth and families.
The Bridge For Youth is currently renovating a house in East Isles designed for 18-21 year olds transitioning into independence, and YouthLink breaks ground this year on a 46-unit housing project next to its downtown headquarters.
There is plenty of reason for hope, said David Jeffries, St. Stephen’s director of single adult programs who worked in street outreach from 2008-2012.
“That’s the reason why I come to work,” he said.
Jeffries keeps in touch with one man who slept below I-394 under piles of sleeping bags and blankets. The man barely spoke to outreach workers until a minus 20 degree day.
“He had gotten fed up with another winter outside,” Jeffries said.
He said panhandling makes it harder to bring people in, however. He once tried to convince someone to get help while a vehicle rolled up with 20 boxes of pizza. People should donate instead to nonprofits for room deposits, application fees or bus tokens, he said.
“We appreciate the compassion of the community, but the solution is housing,” Dorfman said.
“It’s difficult to engage people when their needs are being met,” Jeffries said.
More than 50,000 vehicles pass people holding signs each day at the Hennepin/Lyndale corridor near the Walker Art Center.
One Lowry Hill resident keeps binoculars and a log of the activity she sees from her nearby apartment window.
“Some days we might have 20 emergency vehicles here, from morning to night,” said the woman, who requested not to print her name. “They will take away somebody in an ambulance in the morning, and they will be back here drinking in the afternoon.”
She documented as many as 40 people congregating at Hennepin & Lyndale last year, bringing mattresses and barbecue grills. Up to seven people carry signs at different corners, she said.
She called 911 on Feb. 14 after witnessing several people beat a person in the middle of the street. One man held a baseball bat with spikes, she said. Most of the group had dispersed by the time police arrived.
The woman said she calls 911 when people conspicuously pass a vodka bottle around, or when someone falls down on the street and passes out. She keeps more than 40 block club leaders abreast of the situation in monthly letters. She calls 311 when she sees overflowing trash cans, graffiti and abandoned bikes. She’s met with churches and neighborhood groups and corresponded with her council member, precinct inspector and crime prevention specialist. All have been helpful, she said, but the problem isn’t solved.
She learned from police in February that warmer weather has caused more activity in the area. 1st Precinct Inspector Michael Sullivan said in an email he would step up patrols, and St. Stephen’s outreach workers would visit the group on a daily basis.
“I haven’t found anybody that has a long-term solution,” the resident said. “…But I’m not giving up yet.”
She wishes that police would enforce trespassing laws, and that drivers would stop giving money to panhandlers.
“I keep thinking that someday I’m going to wake up and it’s all going to be over, because somebody is going to do something,” she said.
On the street below the apartment, Jane Bringsthem recently talked to her daughter on the phone, and called out to Samuel Hawkins carrying a sign across the street. She chatted with him about the president and the drug cartel leader El Chapo. She said she might go home to Wakiagun later that day, where she has a television and a phone. She said her children live in beautiful homes and she’s welcome there, although they don’t like her drinking.
“This is suicide,” she said.
When asked about her ideal living situation, Bringsthem didn’t have a ready answer.
“We ain’t leaving,” she said. “There is no way they can make us leave. This is our country.”
The Office to End Homelessness is currently working on a plan targeting the toughest chronic homeless cases as well as youth and families.
“The smaller the number gets, the harder that the cases we see are,” Hewitt said.
Nilsson said increasing public awareness has been one of the most important aspects of the 10-year plan.
“Until the public has the will, whether it’s the public or political will, that’s the first step in all of this,” she said.
She helped Wright, who spent time in the Coast Guard, find housing a decade ago.
“He is a great example where one man’s bum is another man’s hero,” said Nilsson.
If we talked about Wright as an honorably discharged military veteran, she said, people would have a much different frame than if we talked about a panhandler who has a conviction.
“And yet the reality is that’s the same person,” she said. “It’s very often people like to be flip and think people are either good or bad, and they’re either deserving or not deserving. And the reality is all of us have some level of a continuum of good and bad within us. When you see somebody and think, ‘What a bum,’ he’s a hero to you in a different set of clothes.”
When asked why he became homeless, Wright said he was disobedient as a child. He remembers his first cigarette and its immediate hold on him. If it weren’t for St. Stephen’s, Wright said, he would probably be dead. He said the life expectancy of a homeless man is 47, and he’s now in his mid-50s.
“I consider myself a success,” he said. “…I definitely beat the odds.”
The transition hasn’t always been smooth. Wright moved out of his first local apartment, lost the second, stayed in a motel, then a boarding house, and now remains at his current apartment.
“One of the great things about Minnesota is there is help here. It’s not like this everywhere,” he said.
*Corrected to say family members, rather than families.