Homeless increase in the Twin Cities is mirrored near the University

Though the stories and hardships may vary, a sense of community flourishes.

Kamaan Richards

“Elijah the Prophet” plays an original song on his custom guitar in Dinkytown on Saturday, Sept. 7. Elijah intends to use his love of music to start a program for troubled youth in the area.

Dylan Miettinen

In Dinkytown, it can be heard long before it’s seen: the drumming and singing of Chris “Zannman” Zann and a man known exclusively as Elijah the Prophet. 

Though Zannman’s drum top is slightly torn, he makes do by pounding on its side and rim with a rock in one hand and a spice bottle in the other. Elijah’s drum is actually made from a painted and sticker-clad guitar, what he calls a “community project.”

Passersby sometimes stop to listen to the music, some glance down and smile, while others just disregard the makeshift band entirely. A few look ahead and speed up.

While homeless individuals have resided near the University of Minnesota area for decades, many say Dinkytown has seen a noticeable increase in the past few years, reflecting city-wide trends. Shelter counts in January 2018 and January 2019 showed a 50 percent increase in unsheltered people in Hennepin County in the past year. 

Zann, who is working on a book about homelessness in and around the Twin Cities, says he likes to stay in the Dinkytown area because of the sense of community.

“We are a community, we survive by collectivism. It’s equity,” Zann said. “We’re about peace, love and tranquility and making sure that nobody is hungry or thirsty or freezes to death. Here, it’s a community of brothers and sisters.”

‘Regular fixtures’ in Dinkytown

While there is no foolproof way to gauge the amount of homeless individuals who use campus facilities or may stay for periods of time on or near campus, according to the University of Minnesota Police Department, at least one incident report is filed per day relating to a homeless individual, with an increase during winter months. 

However, homelessness is not always something specifically included in those reports, and reports over multiple days often include the same individuals. 

“Just like any other public area, you’ll see people who are displaced or homeless,” said Chris Fonseca, a member of the UMPD community engagement team. “This isn’t specific to just the Twin Cities. It’s part of a national trend.”

Vic Thorstenson, president of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association and long-time resident, said homelessness has been prevalent in the area for decades, though the population ebbs and flows.  

“We get the age-old complaints of business owners in Dinkytown that they don’t want panhandlers. That complaint has probably been there since the first store opened in Dinkytown,” he said.

For Irv Hershkovitz, owner of Dinkytown Wine and Spirits, homeless individuals near his storefront have always been something to address. Many homeless individuals, who will often congregate on the sidewalk near TCF Bank, are “fine and regular fixtures” of the community, he said. Sometimes, they ask to borrow his broom and dustpan to keep the surrounding area clean. 

But others aren’t quite as amicable, Hershkovitz said. He’s seen people drink on the sidewalk, and there have been issues of theft in the past.

Though he said he wishes people wouldn’t panhandle and reside on sidewalks with their belongings near his store, Hershkovitz said he understands it’s their right.

“I feel for them, I really do, but they can make the sidewalks kind of dirty … especially if they have pets,” Hershkovitz said. 

Some businesses have taken concrete steps to stop panhandling. At the Dinkytown Target, a sign displayed in the front window since earlier this summer reads: “If third-party solicitors are present, it is without permission and they are trespassing.”

Trent Mathison, a department manager who has worked at the location for three years, said that the sign was in direct response to an uptick in homelessness in the area. 

“We’ve had problems with [homeless individuals] coming into the store and asking for donations, so it’s more just like a warning for them,” Mathison said. 

According to Zann, businesses in the area treat them fairly as long as they keep walkways clear of belongings. 

“Some kids who work at the restaurants and stuff around here will give us pizzas or sandwiches or things like that,” he said. “It depends on who the employees are. The students in particular treat us well.”

The root causes of homelessness

Homelessness is largely driven by a primary factor: lack of affordable housing, said John Tribbett, the street outreach manager with St. Stephen’s, a nonprofit which provides resources to homeless individuals. 

The organization partnered with UMPD last year to address homelessness around the University. 

“In the Twin Cities, we consistently see higher occupancy rates for a larger metro area. We have rents increasing year by year, yet wages remain stagnant,” Tribbett said. 

Because the housing available to Twin Cities residents is sparse and often unaffordable, landlords can be more selective in the tenants they choose, Tribbett said. That means if an individual has a blemished record, such as a criminal background, a landlord can simply turn them down and draw from the large pool of housing applicants. 

There are also the historical remainders of racial covenants put in place to discourage and disallow the ownership of property by people of color in certain areas, Tribbett said.

While American Indians make up only 1 percent of the population in Minnesota, they account for 12 percent of the state’s homeless population, according to findings by Wilder Research, an organization studying homelessness in Minnesota. Black adults consist of 5 percent of the state’s population but 37 percent of the homeless population. 

The University’s accessibility by public transportation may be another reason for the area’s homelessness increase, said David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. The Green Line train is now being replaced by buses between 2 and 4 a.m. on weekdays, which Hewitt said may displace people who used it as shelter during the night.

“The time that this shift is happening, most of our shelters would be full, so it’s hard to find alternative places for people to stay,” Hewitt said. 

Tribbett said that the move is like many others: a discomfort with and nonsolution for homelessness. Even subtle designs, called environmental engineering, can make it difficult for homeless individuals to exist comfortably in public spaces. 

For example, the designs of the angled seats at the West Bank, East Bank and Stadium Village Metro stops do not allow homeless individuals to sleep there overnight, Tribbett said. 

According to Hewitt, homelessness is a complex issue, with a multitude of causal factors. Those with safety nets may avoid living on the streets, whereas those without may have nowhere else to go.

“Loss of a spouse, serious health issues, chemical dependencies, abuse disorders, mental health issues: these are some of many of the things that homeless people face. They’re just not easily able to bounce out of their situation as someone with adequate resources can,” he said. 

A sense of community

On a Saturday, a group of six, with more filtering in and out of the area, sat on the short retaining wall outside of the parking lot for Dinkytown’s TCF Bank. Among them are criminal histories, mental health issues, traumatic injuries and substance abuse. 

There is Peter, who wished to only be referred to by his first name for privacy reasons, who works at a restaurant. He said he stays in Dinkytown because the restaurant is close, but apartments nearby are just too expensive for him. 

One man panhandling outside of the Dinkytown Target said he’s homeless because his girlfriend, with whom he lived, is currently at an addiction treatment clinic. He declined to give his name because he didn’t want his daughter to find out.

There is Zara Case, who was previously homeless and stayed in the area. Though she and her boyfriend have an apartment in the area, they still like to hang out in Dinkytown because “it’s diverse and there’s a sense of community.”

Multiple homeless individuals reiterated that feeling. On the cool concrete, where some people walk and others reside, people who have experienced crime, addiction and mental health issues also experience music, laughter and joy.

Zann said that this community is constantly shifting – and, at this point in time, growing. 

“In a moment,” Zann said, “you could lose it all, too.”

Correction: a previous version of this story misstated the number of people without shelter from January 2018-19. Shelter counts in January 2018 and January 2019 showed a 50 percent increase in unsheltered people in Hennepin County in the past year.