Homeless shelter falls to budget crunch

Approximately 100 men sleep on a tile floor at the Portland Avenue shelter in Minneapolis.

by Patricia Drey

After Melvin Johnson left the University in the fall of 1991, battles with depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and credit card debt left him seeking shelter.

Many nights of his wandering, 12-year journey have ended up at 519 Portland Ave. in a shelter where he and approximately 100 other men sleep on a tile floor.

“Not dealing with a lot of things, that’s why I’m here today,” Johnson said.

Johnson, 35, planned to get a pre-secondary education degree, but he said he was not concentrating enough on his classes, so he dropped out of the University after two quarters.

Since then, he said, he has had a variety of jobs, such as teaching Head Start preschool classes and working as a home health aide, but nothing he has really enjoyed.

Soon, Johnson and the other men who call the shelter home at least a few nights each week will have to make a decision.

The shelter is closing April 15 because of the state budget crunch and conditions some community leaders believe are inadequate for human living.

Johnson said he hopes to be able to move to somewhere “warm and comfy” when the shelter closes, but he said he worries about what choices some of the other homeless men the shelter holds might make.

Life at the shelter is not perfect, though. For hygiene, the men use portable toilets instead of bathrooms and share one drinking fountain. During the summer, the air conditioner in the windowless shelter often does not work.

The shelter is only available to men, and its doors are open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. The men sleep on plastic-covered foam pads that amount to 6-inch-thick exercise mats.

The shelter used to be an animal-testing facility, and the nine-room building retains a sterile feel. The floors are tile, and each is fitted with a drain.

Despite the conditions, the men who live and work at the shelter are committed to keeping it open. They posted flyers and held meetings to brainstorm ways to keep the doors from closing, shelter manager Bill Fischer said.

Although he made a number of phone calls, he said he still is not exactly sure why the shelter is closing.

Fischer has worked at the shelter for two years, typically logging seven nights per week. He said he learned two weeks ago the shelter was closing.

He said he will miss the approximately 80 men who have become regulars at the shelter and who are like family to him now.

“I would’ve quit lots of times if it wasn’t for some of these guys,” Fischer said. “I should not have grown this close to these guys. They’d do anything for me, and I’d do anything for them.”

When the shelter closes, the police will probably receive more calls dealing with the homeless, said David Queen, a Minneapolis police officer and weekend security guard at the shelter.

Many of the men at the shelter struggle with chemical dependency, and if they are not in the shelters, police will probably get more calls to pick them up and take them to detox centers, Queen said.

With more people intoxicated and on the streets, crime will probably increase, he said.

“They either become a victim themselves, or they become the perpetrators.”

City officials hope to make up for losing the shelter’s 100 spots by keeping the Salvation Army Harbor Light shelter’s Safe Bay floor open during the summer, Commissioner Gail Dorfman said.

Like the shelter at 519 Portland, Safe Bay is a men’s overflow shelter. Overflow shelters are usually the last in the city to open at night, for the people who could not fit in one of the other shelters.

Tracy Berglund, an administrator for Catholic Charities and the 519 Portland shelter, said Safe Bay’s operation costs are approximately $53,000 less than 519 Portland’s during a six-month period.

Bill Miller, the Harbor Lights envoy, said the Safe Bay floor holds at least 40 people, and the shelter can open additional rooms to accommodate more people if necessary.

Safe Bay usually closes in the summer, but the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness recommended the City Council use part of Minneapolis’ federal emergency services money to help keep the shelter open.

Even without a guarantee of funding, Miller said, the shelter will work to meet the community’s needs, but he also said this is just a “stop-gap” measure until the community can choose a more permanent site.

This measure might not even provide a temporary solution, however, said Monica Nilsson, director at Simpson Shelter. She said that even with beds full at the 519 Portland shelter, Safe Bay’s floor often fills up.

“No matter what the weather, you’re not safe outside,” Nilsson said. “You’re not clean, you don’t have food, you don’t have storage. Even if you slept in your own back yard, how productive would you be the next day?”

The Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul, which can house 150 people per night, is also at high risk for closing April 15, Berglund said.

Secure Waiting Area, another downtown Minneapolis shelter – which receives half its funding from property taxes – is also in danger, Nilsson said.

Because how much local governments can raise property taxes is limited and because the city government might lose state aid money, the shelter’s 250 beds might also be in jeopardy, she said.

Money is not shelter providers’ biggest problem, though, Nilsson said. Even tougher is finding shelter locations.

Opening a new shelter requires cooperation from neighbors, city government and a religious organization, since the Minneapolis zoning code demands that a shelter be located within a religious institution.

Nilsson said homeless advocates have been trying to open a shelter in the Lovepower Church at Interstate 35W and Washington Avenue for three years, but lawsuits from neighbors claiming the shelter would compromise their rights have delayed the project.

Advocates are also struggling to get enough support from city government and neighbors to open a shelter at Trinity Church in northeast Minneapolis.

As for Johnson, he said things are looking up, and he does not expect to be homeless much longer. He started a job at a phone bank and just began using an appointment book he bought a year ago.

“I feel lighter today than I’ve felt in a long time,” Johnson said.

Patricia Drey covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]