Dignity. Housing. Help. Five dollars. That’s what some people clamored for when they saw us on the Blue Line one July morning. With our safety vests on and our clipboards wielded, they recognized us as staff (volunteer or paid, it didn’t seem to matter to them) conducting the Point-In-Time Count. It’s a quarterly – now biannual – census of people who are experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities area.
There is no doubt that those who recognized us have experienced homelessness for quite some time. After all, in 2017, there were over 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in Hennepin County. Of those experiencing homelessness, Metro Transit estimates about 300 unhoused folk sleep on the Blue and Green lines every night.
I rode the Green Line daily when I was serving at a nonprofit in St. Paul. During my morning commute, I always saw at least one person who seemed to be experiencing homelessness. It’s an ongoing trend. When St. Paul Councilmember Nelson and Hennepin County Commissioner Conley rode the Green Line the other night, they saw around 200 people.
There are many reasons why the unhoused ride the train overnight. It’s warm. The shelters are full. It’s safer than the shelters. “No one will bother you”, one houseless folk I spoke with said. They get tokens to ride them.
Weeks before, a comrade, Chris Knutson, had asked for volunteers to conduct the count. Chris, a Street Outreach Team Lead, has been with St. Stephens for 2.5 years. At that point, I had never rode Metro Transit overnight but was always curious about it. As a result, I decided to join several of my comrades, as well as outreach workers from both St. Stevens and Hennepin County, to survey those experiencing homelessness.
St. Stephens partners with Hennepin County to conduct Point-In-Time counts. It’s mandated by HUD. Knutson tells me that the purpose of the count is to understand how many people are unsheltered in a given night. The counts serve many purposes. It provides information about homelessness to policymakers, the media, and the community. It also helps the county understand whether or not it is meeting its Heading Home Hennepin goal of ending homelessness once and for all. While counts occur throughout the County, St. Stephens focuses on counting people at transit stations and on the trains.
We were placed in teams of 3 to 4. My group comprised of people who either work for the County or for St. Stephens. I was the only volunteer on my team. During training, we learned that some might not be inclined to take the survey. It was understandable; many of those we encountered later that night were hesitant to take the survey because they don’t believe that the organizations involved with the count will help them. To encourage people to take the survey, we were ask to provide a monetary incentive – five dollars – to everyone who takes it. And take it they did.
After our training, we proceeded to our starting points. I was assigned to a team to interview people on the Blue Line. We drove to Target Field.
We arrived shortly before our train was scheduled to depart. While we waited, we heard more about what our team member from the county did. She was a social worker, and she was recently given the ability to work remotely. This allows her to visit the shelters when she needs to, as well as work on her Masters’ in Social Work, which the county paid for. She likes her job a lot. After the conversation, we moved to the station.
After a couple minutes of waiting at the station, the train pulls up. We all board. Two members of our team proceed to the other end of the train to interview who appeared to be experiencing homelessness. I proceeded to interview a veteran who is wheelchair-bound. The veteran chooses to spend the night on the train because it has more of a sense of community, and that people will leave each other alone. They try to avoid the shelters; it’s not secure, as they knew someone who was assaulted and had their belongings stolen.
At Nicollet Mall, a couple with Nice Ride bikes board, their belongings tied up on the front rack. As we approached Minnehaha Park, I interviewed them. They, like many who were interviewed in the morning, do want a place to live. But they have barriers. One of them have been convicted of felonies or have an eviction on record. Sometimes, that’s enough to ensure that they won’t have stable housing, let alone a job.
It was difficult to coordinate when would be best to move between trains. During training, we were informed that we would not have time to move between the trains. Before we left Target Field, I asked the operator to give us that time. Unfortunately, the operator wasn’t allowed to wait for us to move between them.
Being a good transit rider, I didn’t want to hold the doors open either. So, every time we finished interviewing people on a train, we made our way to the door closest to the next car. Once the train arrived at a station and when the doors opened, we sprinted to the closest doors of the next car. It was tricky, but we made it every time we had to change trains. But one of the teams – assigned to the Green Line – were not successful. They ended up being stranded, left to wait for an hour for the next train.
As we approached the airport, I noticed a rider berate a volunteer. She was homeless for quite awhile, and was disappointed how St. Stephens didn’t help her. She refused to be interviewed.
We end up at Mall of America, where we saw more people experiencing homelessness. Here, we met up with another team stationed at the transit station. Throughout the night, they were counting the people staying at the station, as well as interviewing them. They remarked that their evening so far was uneventful. I went back outside.
As I walk towards the platform, I noticed a Metro Transit operator calling me over. I learned that, because I had my vest on, an operator thought that I was a security guard. They had saw someone run off, and wanted to point me in the right direction. I told them that I was not.
I then proceeded to have a conversation about them driving a bus. The operator, who is based out of South Garage, was almost done for the night. But they had a long way to go. The operator, who drove the 5, had to complete a trip to Brooklyn Center, then come back empty to South Garage. After a brief conversation about operator barriers, I rejoined my team.
On our way back, word had gotten out that we were doing the survey. Some recognized us immediately. One man, who saw us at Target Field, immediately went to tell others about us, saying “five dollars” while gesturing towards us, as if we were there to rescue them. Some people then began to take the survey, only to learn that they weren’t eligible because they said they weren’t experiencing homelessness.
We then boarded the train back to Mall of America. As we wandered through the trains, it became apparent that we interviewed everyone already. The couple with the Nice Ride bikes were still there. So was the veteran in the wheelchair. As was the lady who berated the volunteer about not giving them help. All were asleep, or tried to do so.
We pull in to Mall of America again. This time, things were different. Mall of America Security Forces stood guard, ensuring that everyone at the transit station was on the last train of the night before it left. People who were staying at the transit station proceeded to, and boarded the train. Seeing how it was empty, I decided to get some photos of the station as it was emptying out for the evening.
After that, I was hassled.
It happened without warning. As I walked on the platform, I noticed someone holding up their phone up towards my face, as if they were filming me. I was confused. Why me? He then told me that I had taken a photo of him. He asked me why. I told him I wanted to keep an eye on security, to make sure that they weren’t doing anything stupid.
I decided to then review the photos that I took. As soon as I unlocked my phone, he took my phone from me – and gave me his phone for collateral – and proceeded to peruse the photos on my phone to see if I had indeed taken a photo of him. It turns out I did, but I didn’t know because he was far away. He then proceeded to delete those photos. Afterward, he dropped my phone, and told me that if I were to take his picture again without his permission, he would summon someone who would handle the situation in a more rude fashion.
All of a sudden, the crossing arms sounded.
As uncomfortable as I felt, I told him we should board the train. The last thing that I want to happen is for the train to leave, and for security forces to bully him to leave.
He asked me what I was doing. I explained to him the purpose of the survey, and he indicated that he was. Specifically, that he was taken from his motherland for quite some time. Assuming that met the definition of homelessness, we did the survey.
I felt relieved as he moved on to the next car at Terminal 1. I was shaken, and very angry. My colleagues who were doing the count with me that morning were shocked at how calm I appeared while I was being assaulted. At the end, they were all glad I was safe.
The Blue Line sort of runs 24 hours. Certainly, service is provided between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 overnight. Trains are also scheduled to depart every hour in the northbound direction between Cedar-Riverside and Target Field Stations. Additionally, it also runs more seamlessly on early Saturday and Sunday mornings, with trains scheduled to depart roughly every hour. There are also small service gaps that range from 2 to 3 hours, depending on where you are and where you are trying to go.
But the last trains of the day often pull in at 3am. This means not only is there is an interruption in service, but those who are sleeping on the train need to get off and wait for the next in-service train. From the time the last Blue Line train pulls into Target Field, it is a 24-minute wait for when the next Green Line train departs. In the winter months, those 24 minutes are crucial to whether or not someone experiencing homelessness and choosing to spend it on the train stays alive or dies.
As we approach Target Field, at every stop in Downtown Minneapolis, the operator – out of habit, it seems – announces that passengers should be ready to disembark. It was apparent that the train was ready to pull in for the night.
We arrive at Target Field 15 minutes before 3am. Most of us disembarked, except for some who remained sleeping on the train. After we disembarked, the train proceeded to move to the 2nd platform. It was there for about 15 minutes, as the operator underwent the arduous, soul-crushing task of asking them to disembark so the operator could take the train back to the yard.
Shortly after the train departed for the 2nd platform, we were swarmed by a group of teenagers who appear to have been kicked out of their homes for the night, and were left to wander the streets by themselves. They arrived after they were informed by someone who we saw earlier in the morning that we were conducting surveys. We conducted as many surveys as we could, until they proceeded to board a Green Line train heading to St. Paul.
After the train left, we proceeded back to the vehicle we came from. We then headed to areas surrounding the Blue Line station – Cedar-Riverside, Franklin, Lake, Bloomington & 25th – to see if we could find anyone sleeping outside overnight.
No one was sleeping at the stations. But we did find one person at Bloomington and 25th, lying on the ground. And we became worried, as he was laying spread-out on the ground. Granted, it was relatively warm that evening, so he could have been dissipating his body heat. But, being aware of the opioid crisis, we wanted to make sure he was ok. He said he was, and we reluctantly drove away, back to headquarters so we could return our supplies, debrief, and head home.
I slept until 1pm the next day. I was so tired; it was my 2nd night staying up late! But despite that, I should consider myself lucky that I had a place to go home to for two years. The person who I was renting from at the time afforded me rent that was essentially below market rate.
But many people don’t have a place to rent, much less a place to rent by themselves. We really shouldn’t continue to perpetuate a system of haves and have-nots. Everyone deserves access to safe and comfortable shelter. Looking at the issue on the surface level, we need to go beyond funding nonprofit-operated affordable housing. HUD needs to fund housing, either in the form of public housing or cooperatives.
I also felt fearful in the days after the incident, that I would be seen again by the person who hassled me. But in spite of the incident, I refused to call the police and still don’t think it’s a good idea to have police onboard our transit system. The last thing I want to do is to endanger another life because the odds in society – especially on transit – are stacked against them. It’s all about empathy. I can understand why the person who hassled me got upset; their ancestors were appropriated for profit and without permission, after all.
Instead of calling the police, which will subject them to a pipeline of meaningless incarceration and suppression, what we do instead is reconsider what is “normal” and “not normal”, and what is “dangerous” and “unsafe”. People experiencing homelessness are normal and safe. They just happened to be saddled with labels created by those in power to alienate them from the rest of society. We shouldn’t have a system were people are alienated for not being “normal” and “safe”.
We can unlearn the concept of “normal” and “safe” by helping conduct the next round of surveys. The next Point-In-Time count is happening soon; it is scheduled for January 24-25, 2019. Anyone can conduct Point-In-Time surveys with St. Stephens. From what you read, you will not be doing these counts alone. If you are interested in helping out, reach out to John Tribbett. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.