What you can do in your neighborhood to help the homeless

If you live by railroad tracks, a freeway overpass, or public land you likely have homeless people living in those areas. Rather than pretend they’re not in your ‘hood, you can organize a neighborhood effort to get to know them and provide decent shelter. Believe me, they’re not going away. Even when authorities clean out their camps. They’ll return. Or they’ll go to another place nearby. What would you do without a place to live? Without a job? Without an address so that someone who hires might be able to mail something to you?

MY OVERVIEW OF CAMPERS

I believe it’s better to be proactive about “campers.” This category of homeless people are mostly single males. These include the people who don’t feel safe in overnight shelters where all manner of strangers sleep next to you, or they have been barred from shelters for altercations with staff or shelter inhabitants, or they’re picked on. These might also include those who can’t rent because they’ve been evicted and it’s on their record, forever. It includes those who are unmarried couples (temporary shelters divide unmarried couples into women’s and men’s shelters).

A prevalent myth is that most homeless are mentally ill. Among campers I’ve noticed more addictive behavior (mostly alcohol and weed) and non-existent mental illness (unless addiction is regarded as a mental disorder).

I have found that campers are often very friendly and approachable. I do know of more reclusive campers who camp along the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities of Minnesota who eschew any contact with the sheltered population. But those who are scattered here and there tend to be sociable to those who want to help. And if you’re a bit fearful of approaching these people, remember that after you even lift a little finger to help, what you’ll hear is “God bless you! God bless you for helping! God bless you!”

HOW TO START A NEIGHBORHOOD EFFORT

You’ll need to determine which land upon which to build a more permanent non-tent shelter, build a shelter there, form a neighborhood team and then provide help for those who live in your shelters.

For my own project, I decided to build a shelter first, and then to create a neighborhood team. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t test the waters. I did tell more empathetic neighbors that I planned to build a shelter just to test their response. Of course, from these neighbors I received only praise.

I happen to know most my neighbors because we have once a month gatherings at different homes. From these meet ups, and from a neighborhood listserv upon which I hear all manner of complaints and comments, I’m pretty aware of who would be the neighbor who doesn’t approve. So I just remember a saying: No good deed goes unpunished. And I’ll soon find that out.

However, a pilot project was my intent to test the waters, not just from my neighbors, but from those who would be living there. So the first concern was exactly where would I build the shelter. For that I needed to see who owns the property.

FIND APPROPRIATE PROPERTY

Don’t even think of introducing homeless people where they don’t already exist. Campers have found the land already. They may only be at their site because no one has complained and officials are looking the other way.

Don’t be fooled. If you type the name of your county with the words “tax map” into the search field. For me I typed in “Ramsey County tax map” and ended up with a view of the entire county and the option of zooming in to my desired plots of land. I found several owners of land between a throughway owned by the University of Minnesota, a commercial building and railroad tracks. I found that the map didn’t state the owners of the throughway, or of the land beneath a freeway overpass. A little more research revealed the land under the overpass is owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation with a portion leased to a railroad company.

A plot of land between the commercial building and the railways stuck out like a sore thumb. It’s owned by the Port Authority of Saint Paul and the purpose of the land is for utilities. However, the campers already at the site were not in this area. Instead one was under the overpass and the other next to the commercial building on their property (though he was told by the University of Minnesota police that he was on University of Minnesota property).

At this point the perfect place didn’t immediately stand out. The commercial building owners didn’t seem to care because the camper had never been approached by them. In the end, I believe the commercial land would have been best suited for the shelters, but the campers were far less visible under the bridge. So we risked putting the shelters under the bridge. Our thought was that the shelters would be overlooked as long as the area around them was kept clean. As it was, the campers produced a mess of objects around their tents with several items blown into surrounding weeds and spindly trees.

I don’t know if one can easily find a place for a shelter without building it illegally. Having said that, any public place according to federal law can be used for camping according to a United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that cited no alternative access to shelter is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause.

THE SHELTER

The shelter design at our non-profit (PrevailNews.org) is made to be insulated well against Minnesota cold. The design is pretty basic and includes free palettes for the floor.

The means for heating is propane, with a heater that turns off if it topples over. This prevents possible fire. Note that our door is made to allow air inside through inevitable cracks. That prevents issues with carbon monoxide build up.

Note that many neighbors, city officials, observers, etc., will mention issues with safety in regard to propane heaters. What they fail to mention is that Minnesota boasts thousands of ice houses over the winter with many heated by propane and you won’t hear any concerns about ice fisherman safety. Nor is there an equal or greater concern with hypothermia from temperatures that can go well into the -20’s.

THE NEIGHBORS AND A NEIGHBORHOOD HELP GROUP

Start by talking with more empathetic neighbors with and without children. They’ll have a lot of questions, mostly about the homeless campers you’ve met. Here’s a brief list:

Why are they homeless?
You may not know this answer. I don’t generally ask. I think it’s an intrusion. Once I’m hanging long enough with campers they eventually tell me, but if I don’t know I simply respond with “Every homeless person has their unique story. All I know is this: once you’ve been homeless even for as little as three months, you’re extremely likely to be among those who are chronically homeless. Because homelessness is a kind of trauma, and recovery from that trauma is not just difficult but often impossible.”

Why can’t they get a job? Our economy is booming.
They can. Fitfully if hired by a temp agency. But it’s hard to get a job when there’s a gap in employment. And the longer the gap, the harder it is. And you need an address. A phone you can have constant access to. Imagine going to get a job while camping without a shower.

How do you know they won’t be stealing from our garages?
They’ll probable watch our garages to make sure others don’t steal from them. They don’t like to be stolen from any more than you do.

Our property values will go down.
If campers are by railroad tracks, generally they are nowhere near the neighborhood to affect property values. They tend to hide themselves and will take alternate routes outside the neighborhood if asked to do so.

A GOOD WAY TO GET BUY IN

Everyone likes rules. If you go to the neighbors and tell them the campers will follow a set of rules, then you may make headway. Some won’t believe homeless follow rules, but if one rule is they’ll keep the area clean (and you’ll have to get a commitment from the campers) then neighbors can see “rule following” for themselves.

It’s also helpful if you get their full names, a photo of them smiling, and do a search for any criminal records. You WILL have to ask the campers if any have a sexual offender (S.O.) record. And then you’ll have to check on them. If one of them does have S.O. on their record, you will have to look at the details of the charge. Not all S.O. charges are rape and the like. Thousands of people are on the sexual offender registry for innocent sexual activities done as children (see this from the New Yorker).

A search for criminal records can be had by any one of the name search sites for a fee. But you can check by state by typing “criminal record” and your state. Scroll down when you get results until you find a state agency. Note that you will also need the date of birth for campers.

GIVE NEIGHBORS SOMETHING TO DO

Everyone wants to help. Assign tasks to neighbors that would really create buy-in. If you mention the success of other neighborhood teams then you can get more credibility for your undertaking.

Tasks can include:

Once a week garbage pick up from the camp
Contacting social service and other agencies to aid the campers
Contacting treatment programs to assist campers
Checking in on them to see if things are going well once a week