Listen: PKG: LRT Homeless (MOINI)

MPR’s Nina Moini reports on the chronic homeless population living on the Twin Cities light rail system. Police and homeless outreach coordinators say the number of people using the Green and Blue lines as a mobile shelter is increasing at an alarming rate.


2019 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Radio - Hard News Report category


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CATHY WURZER: Every night, an estimated 200 people are using the metro area light rail system for shelter. Police and homeless outreach coordinators say the number of people using the Green and Blue Lines as a mobile shelter is increasing at an alarming rate. Nina Moini has the story.

NINA MOINI: The snow has all melted by the time photographer Judy Griesedieck and I follow Chris Knutson as he checks in with homeless people along the light rail system. But it's the type of late April night in Minnesota where you can still see your breath, a night you definitely need a coat if you're spending time outside.

CHRIST KNUTSON: With street outreach, I mean, we might talk to the same person 10 times before they give us the time of day.

NINA MOINI: Knutson leads street outreach for St. Stephen's Human Services, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit working to end homelessness. He's a dark haired 20 something who went to college for advertising until he felt called to serve people in some of the most difficult situations. Two years later, he spends his time visiting known hot spots for homelessness in the overnight hours, asking people how St. Stephen's can help get them on a path toward housing. He says, without a home, getting everything else like a steady job or substance abuse treatment is nearly impossible. He says people using the light rail line for shelter suffer from a serious lack of sleep among countless other challenges.

CHRIST KNUTSON: The most sleep you're going to get is 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there. You're constantly having to worry about who else is on the train. It's noisy. It's bright.

NINA MOINI: On this night, Knutson takes us to the Mall of America Blue Line stop first. He says it's popular because the stop is underground and heated. Inside, we find a small community of people who are homeless. Underneath the harsh glow of fluorescent lights with mall security walking by every few minutes, more than a dozen people sit in small groups, some sleeping, some sitting in a circle on the floor sharing laughs and a bag of Cheetos.

SPEAKER 1: Interview? They got a microphone. No, you do it.

NINA MOINI: One of them is Mattie Grassrope, who tells us she's 53 and originally from South Dakota. She's in a motorized chair and wearing pink socks, telling us her shoes were stolen from her feet. What is it like down here at nights and stuff?

MATTIE GRASSROPE: Oh, it's pretty hard, really hard.


MATTIE GRASSROPE: We got to keep up, stay up, and maintain because they'll come at you on both sides. And scary at night.

NINA MOINI: Do you feel unsafe?


NINA MOINI: Knutson says Grassrope who he has talked with several times is part of the chronic homeless population that is often most difficult to serve. But there are people of all backgrounds and ages looking for shelter on the LRT. Some have jobs, kids traveling with them, or are between homes. Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington says the problem has gotten worse since his tenure began in 2012.

JOHN HARRINGTON: If you were a cop and you worked the system, you recognized it because there were ones or twos out there. And hundreds now at several different platforms. It has become very noticeable and it's also become increasingly disruptive.

NINA MOINI: Harrington says he's in constant talks with city and state officials about how to help the homeless population using the trains, but there continues to be a lack of available shelter space and funding to add shelter beds.

JOHN HARRINGTON: Being homeless is not illegal. And when we checked, about 85% of the homeless do, in fact, have paid fares. Now, those paid fares oftentimes come from the social service agencies who have bought them a bus token or a train token so that they can ride because there's no more room at higher ground and there's no more room at Union Gospel Mission or one of the other centers. So they're not breaking any law by being on the train. And so we said, we were not going to take any action against folks that, in fact, are lawfully riding our train.

NINA MOINI: Yet Harrington notes that some of the other riders have complained about the conditions of the trains at night.

JOHN HARRINGTON: I'm trying to be not indelicate here, but we don't have bathrooms. There is no way to have-- be treated with dignity in that environment. And we recognize we're not the best place, but we also recognize that for a mom and her kids, it's safe, it's dry. And if somebody is bothering them, the police come right away. If the alternative is under a bridge, sleeping in your car, I'm more afraid of her safety and the well-being of those kids than I am about the comfort of a few others.

NINA MOINI: Back on the light rail system, Chris Knutson takes us along the Blue Line in Minneapolis and the Green Line, which runs from Minneapolis to Saint Paul. He asks us not to go on to the trains because he's noticed they've become more volatile in recent months. From the windows, around 1:00 AM, we see dozens of people trying to sleep, some with dirty looking comforters pulled over their heads.

CHRIST KNUTSON: We need to increase our emergency shelter bed capacity. And I think we need to do it with smaller shelters, 50-bed shelters, things like that so that people aren't turned off by the shelter system.

NINA MOINI: This past winter, Saint Paul opened a temporary 50-bed shelter called the Winter Safe Space, but the $400,000 cost was only funded through March. Safe Space has since closed with no plans to reopen. Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who began his term in January, says the homeless problem is a regional challenge caused by many factors, including the shortage of affordable housing.

MELVIN CARTER (ON PHONE): Right now in Saint Paul we have incredibly low vacancy rates with regard to residential vacancies. We have rents that are high and rising. And we've got a aging housing stock.

NINA MOINI: Carter notes that Catholic Charities is opening what they're calling Saint Paul's Opportunity Center in July of 2019. The Downtown housing complex supported by mostly private donations will replace an older shelter and provide nearly 200 more units of temporary and permanent housing with preference given to veterans and young people aging out of foster care. But the need is greater than that so Chris Knutson says he will continue reaching out to people like Mattie Grassrope.

CHRIST KNUTSON: Well, I mean somebody's got to do it. People that are not in shelter are not going to get the services that people in shelter do unless there are teams like Street Outreach that are out meeting people where they're at.

NINA MOINI: And for now that's on the train. Nina Moini, Minnesota Public Radio News.

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