Falling Through the Cracks
BY RACHEL LIEBERMAN
It’s getting harder and harder to secure a stable home in Hennepin County, Minnesota. Between the increasing numbers of people sleeping on public transit, the rise of homeless encampments, and the soaring cost of housing, there are signs of this crisis all around us.
In fact, many have turned to their cars for shelter, parking at highway rest areas to sleep overnight.
When I stopped by Elm Creek Rest Area near the Minneapolis suburb of Maple Grove one cold and snowy weekend morning in early January, the scene was quiet. The rest area is just off Interstate 94, overlooking a park area around Rice Lake. There were a few cars in the lot, belonging to travelers or commuters, stopping for a just brief period of time.
Three other cars appeared to have been there longer. In one, I could see a couple with a dog, and what looked like many belongings. The car was running as I tapped on their window and asked if I could speak with them. They declined. Another car was draped with towels over the windows, presumably for shade and privacy.
In the third car, I met Sharlene, a 50-year old woman who told me she’d been staying in her car at this rest area for the past three weeks. She agreed to talk with me but asked that I only use her first name.
?Where I was staying before, with a friend, I couldn’t stay anymore,? she shared, after rolling down the window of her small, dark grey Toyota Yaris, neatly organized with bins of personal belongings in the back and clothes hung up on the rear passenger seat handles. ?It was just too crowded, so I found myself with nowhere to go.? ?
Sharlene said she originally moved to Minnesota from Kansas to be closer to family in the area. Her daughter, she explained, lives in an apartment with Sharlene’s young grandkids but because of the management’s capacity restrictions, she can’t reside with them any longer either. Her family was stuck in a ?damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation,? she said, pointing out that if she were to be caught staying with her daughter and grandchildren they all may be out in the cold.
Despite her living conditions, Sharlene said she works part-time as a caretaker for a 92-year old retired schoolteacher. Full-time employment is difficult due to her current health status, she explained. She said she has a rare form of eye cancer, so she can’t do computer work. She also has problems with her feet and hips and can’t do a lot of standing or excessive sitting.
Based on her own experience and by the experiences of other homeless folks she’s come to know, Sharlene said the path out of homelessness is difficult at best. ?I’m going to try to move into housing,? she explained, ?but the problem is I fall between cracks. She said she has called numerous social service agencies like the United Way ?and they can’t help me. I’m working, not old enough to be considered a senior citizen, I don’t have young children, and I don’t qualify as disabled, even though I’ve applied for disability. It can take two, three years to get approved. Because of my health, I’ve tried holding down full-time jobs and can’t?it’s just too hard on my body.??
Sharlene, age 50, parks?at a rest stop near Maple Grove, Minnesota. She says she’s?been living in her car since early January.
According to Kelly Puspoki, the Vice President of Communications for Greater Twin Cities United Way, help for folks like Sharlene is actually just a call away, simply by dialing 211, United Way’s resource helpline. ?People are available to offer help 24/7, every day of the year,? she said. The 211 helpline is designed to assist in both crisis situations or for simple questions. ?Operators listen to the challenges and needs of the person calling in and make recommendations and connect them. They have access to more than 40,000 resources, from housing and food to job-related or childhood education needs.? The call is free and callers can communicate in nearly 100 different languages. The helpline is also available at 211.org.
Yet as Sharlene points out, ?Once you find yourself in a situation like this it’s hard to get out of it. Nobody can help me.? The frustration rose in her voice. ?The only way to get out of it is to help myself, which right now is difficult. How are people supposed to find a job when they may go days without showering, clean clothes, or they don’t have a way to get to an interview??
Sharlene said she’s thought about staying in a homeless shelter but wouldn’t know where to leave her car without having to pay for parking, and fears that someone might break into it. ?I’d rather just stay in my car, with my belongings,? she said.
The rest area building is open 24 hours, with a bathroom, a drinking fountain, and vending machines. It doesn’t cost anything to stay parked, and Sharlene feels generally safe there. ?Nobody messes with me,? she said. ?The police pretty much leave you alone, as long as you aren’t causing any issues with other people, or destruction of the property.?
The Elm Creek Rest Area near Minneapolis, Minnesota in early January.
Weather, however, is a big concern. ?It sucks living out here,? Sharlene said. ?It’s cold, and there have been some nights when I didn’t have the extra gas to run my car. I’m lucky because I have a blanket. I double it over, tuck myself in, and stay pretty warm for the most part, but it really sucks.?
According to Robert Williams, the manager of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) Rest Area Program, MNDOT has been aware of, and working to remedy this situation, for more than a decade. ?Back in 2011,? he said, ?we noticed the population of homeless individuals was increasing in our rest areas and worked with the Housing Finance Agency, Department of Veterans Affairs, State Patrol, and local law enforcement several times on this issue.?Williams and his team also worked with local social service organizations like St. Stephen’s Place?and People Incorporated. He said counselors who have made visits to the rest area have had mixed results. Some are able to convince a few people to seek assistance, but most simply don’t want to go to a shelter.
MNDOT also received complaints from motorists and visitors at the rest stops?especially in connection with the Elm Creek location. Those grievances continue today. Williams explained, ?We’re getting complaints from users that are concerned about vehicles with towels over the windows. It’s disconcerting and creates a very unsafe position for both the people in the vehicle and other rest area users.? As an example, he cited a family that brought three vehicles (a car, an RV and a truck) to the rest area. ?They had a daughter there that social services came and took away,” he said, unsure if the family has yet been reunited or not.
Williams also said some of the custodians who clean the rest area have expressed concern for their safety, when people have taken sleeping bags and slept inside restroom toilet stalls.
To address the Elm Creek problem initially, MNDOT started putting restrictions on parking and arranged for more regular visits to the site. ?Right now,? Williams said, ?MNDOT only knows of two individuals living at Elm Creek on a regular basis, down from 14 about a year ago before the construction project (the rest area was closed to the public during the month of November 2018). After that construction a lot of folks did not return.?
A sign at the Elm Creek Rest Area near Minneapolis, Minnesota now states that all non-commercial vehicles are only allowed to park there “four hours per 24 hour period.”?
Ethna (Essie) McKiernan is an outreach worker at People Incorporated; it’s an organization that serves people with mental illness. McKiernan has made several visits to the Elm Creek Rest Area. ?I’ve seen as many as 20 cars with people in them,? living out of their vehicles, she said.?The count is usually higher in the summer.
During an early January visit, McKiernan said she came across at least nine cars filled with people, or with towels covering the windows. Last year, McKiernan said she was able to get one person housed, but nobody so far this year. ?I can only get out there about every six-to-seven weeks to see what people need,? she explained. ?Sometimes it’s simple gear like mittens or hand warmers.?
She’ll also conduct what’s called a VI-SPDAT, or Vulnerability Index Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool. The county uses this mechanism to assess vulnerability and prioritize housing for people who are both sheltered and unsheltered. McKiernan said those who qualify, however, don’t necessarily receive immediate help. The priority waiting list for services currently stands at about 1,100 people.
McKiernan said she’s seen a mix of folks at the rest stops. ?Some are on general assistance and barely able to put gas in their cars, and not working because of one disability or another,? she said. Some (like Sharlene) are working part-time or as much as they can, and just can’t make it.?
Finding housing is a crucial first step toward any kind of stability. ?I’ve had folks that go on to work, and work themselves right off of general assistance because housing is such a crucial piece,? McKiernan explained. ?With housing, you don’t have that desperate insecurity every moment.?
During McKiernan’s decades of working to link the homeless to appropriate health and housing services, there have been plenty of success stories?but she’s also watched an increase in the cost of housing far outrun income and funds allocated for public housing services. ?The cost of an apartment in Hennepin County has just soared,? she explained. ?Ten years ago, I could house someone in a really nice one-bedroom for $650 a month. That isn’t the case anymore. Now, you can barely get a studio for $800 a month. If you’re using county financial assistance, or housing support, the county puts in $891. By the time you can find a place and pay an electric bill, it’s not enough.?
McKiernan said statistics also indicate the worsening problem. The number of homeless people she has observed living on, and along, public transit routes through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ?Point in Time? or PIT counts (annual one-night counts conducted during the last 10 days of January each year to estimate both the number of people experiencing homelessness, as well as the beds available to serve them) has grown. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2018 PIT Count?found 7,243 homeless people in the State of Minnesota. The Wilder Foundation’s most recent Minnesota Homeless Study, conducted in 2015, found the top reason for homelessness in Minnesota to be a lack of affordable housing, followed by lack of employment, obstacles to maintaining housing, and ripple effects caused by discrimination in housing and other systemic inequities.
McKiernan also added, ?I know clients who sleep in casinos,?for example, or motel closets ? anywhere they can find. We have insufficient and inadequate shelters. There are 150 people in the Navigation Center (a temporary shelter in South Minneapolis that serves people who were previously living in a nearby homeless encampment). What’s gonna happen come May when it closes? Maybe half of them will get housed. The lack of shelters and sufficient shelter is huge, and the kind of shelter that we need only exists in the smaller church shelters that accommodate about 50 people.?
Cars gather at the Elm Creek Rest Area near Minneapolis, Minnesota on a cold January day.
McKiernan continued, ?When the numbers get as big as they do at Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center it becomes a prison and nobody wants to live there.? The Harbor Light Center?in Minneapolis is one of Minnesota?s largest homeless adult outreach facilities. It offers a clinical treamtment program for men working to beat chemical dependency, a safe place to spend the night for men and women, and free hot dinner ? first come first served.
?Sharlene, though living the reality of this housing cost vs. income mismatch, and frustrated by the shortage of available assistance, insisted she is working hard to get herself into stable housing. ?Hopefully I’m going to be out of this situation soon,? she said. ?I’ve been putting things in place to try and get myself out of it but look at the cost of rent! Rent is crazy, ridiculously high. Most places you go want you to have a high credit score to get in, or they want you making three times the monthly rent in income. If you’re not making $18-20 an hour, how are you supposed to make three times the rent? Whether people realize it or not, homelessness is a vicious cycle, and it’s becoming an epidemic in this country.?
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey also expressed frustration in his January inaugural address, saying, ?Right now a huge percentage of our homeless population is working. They are working! But they can’t make up the gap between the cost of a shelter and the cost of the deepest affordable housing in our city. We are perpetually keeping them trapped in a cycle of homelessness because we have not provided that next rung on the ladder that would allow them to pull themselves out.?
He added, ?Not only is this inhumane and inequitable?it’s a bad financial decision. It costs three times as much to keep a person homeless, on the streets, cycling through hospital stays, shelter, and sometimes jail than it does to just give them a home.?
When I left Sharlene on that mid-January day, she expressed relief that the winter had been mild so far; it was 24 degrees at the time. Yet by mid-February, Minnesota temperatures had dropped to double digits below zero, accompanied by freezing rain and 22 inches of snow.
Too cold to be outdoors for more than even a few minutes, and definitely too cold to be living in a car at a rest stop.
Rachel Lieberman can be reached at .
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