For seven years, Barb Moldenhauer and Ron LaBarre rented a duplex on St. Paul’s Taylor Avenue, sometimes clashing with neighbors over the comings and goings of workers from LaBarre’s longstanding contracting business, RDL Painting and Woodfinishing.
The apartment was just two blocks from Newell Park, a woodsy, 10-acre get-away for their two young children, and rent was a steal.
Then their property owner died and a management firm took over. Within months, the couple found themselves seeking legal aid over a housing dispute they said centered around a $1,000-per-month rent hike. Before long, they had lost their housing entirely, forcing them into the growing ranks of the newly homeless.
After placing much of their personal effects in storage a few weeks ago, the family stayed at a hotel with a pool for as long as they could afford.
In mid-July, they pitched a tent in Newell Park, where they lived as a foursome for about two weeks before moving last weekend into a single room at Project Home, emergency housing operated by Interfaith Action on St. Paul’s Randolph Avenue.
They still returned to Newell Park daily to visit LaBarre’s brother, who had taken residence in a tent next to them, and to support the other homeless residents they’ve met there.
Had they ever been homeless before? “Hell no,” said LaBarre last Saturday, standing in front of a small enclave of tents that had proliferated throughout the eastern edges of the park, which is situated off Fairview Avenue and Pierce Butler Route.
“It hasn’t been entertaining,” LaBarre said, “but it’s been very eventful. … (I’m) trying to keep my composure for the kids. I’m human. I get stressed out.”
‘IT’S LIKE A NEW TENT EVERY NIGHT’
When they arrived at Newell last month, another family was already living in the shaded area east of the city playground, but that family has since moved on. In the past few weeks, another 10 tents had congregated in a wide semi-circle around them, each home to two or three people with limited other housing options, according to park inhabitants.
On a recent Friday evening, Moldenhauer pointed to a tent across the park green occupied by a couple in their 60s. In the tent next to it, a young woman from warmer climes down south was visibly pregnant. Perhaps 100 yards away, a second tent was home to yet another pregnant woman and her partner, she said. Concerns about rent costs, which in many cases barely if at all declined during the pandemic, were common, though the park had drawn a mix of the newly and chronic homeless.
“It’s sad,” Moldenhauer said. “It’s like a new tent every night because people are hearing about it. I’m ready to be done.”
So were some neighbors. On Monday, responding to complaints and the encampment’s growing size, the city posted notices that the tents would soon be cleared. On Thursday, a group of about six St. Paul police officers arrived, and so did a city Bobcat loader. Most residents had scattered by midafternoon, some to emergency shelter arranged through Ramsey County Social Services and other nonprofit partners.
“One young woman, six months pregnant, did not fit into youth shelter guidelines,” said Suzanne Donovan, a spokesperson for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, in an email on Thursday. “Another pregnant woman arrived at the site last week. As of today, both had options to move forward and both declined.”
The couple in their 60s “had been in hotels and getting help from friends but were no longer able to find accommodations,” Donovan explained. They were moved to a county shelter program.
Donovan said the city’s new Homeless Assistance Response Team was well aware of the encampment, one of the more visible among some 50 to 55 tent communities that have emerged across the city this summer. In the past two weeks, the HART team had stopped by twice daily.
In all, the city has identified 120 individuals living in tents throughout St. Paul. Most encampments, said Donovan, are small, many spanning no more than one or two tents. The largest as of this month is likely the one in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood.
ECHOES OF 2020
Those numbers, which have doubled since May, bring with them alarming echoes of December 2020, the first pandemic winter, when outreach workers tallied some 380 people living outdoors in St. Paul. Disturbed by injuries, emergency calls and exploding propane tanks, the city and county cleared the camps last year and relocated the homeless to emergency shelter propped up by federal relief funding.
That funding has largely run out, raising questions for the city about how to respond to the next cold season, just a few months away. And now, as then, not everyone wants to be relocated, and not every shelter is the right fit.
At Project Home, “we’ve got the shelter, but it’s a 10-by-10 room with bunk beds,” said LaBarre, while sitting in his tent with Moldenhauer last weekend, talking through plans for their first dinner at Project Home. It had been hours, if not a full day, since the couple had seen what Moldenhauer referred to as her therapy cat, which isn’t allowed in the shelter. Figuring out an arrangement for the pet would be tricky, he said at the time, though he later worked it out with a friend.
The couple said even after moving into the shelter, they planned to keep their tent in Newell Park for LaBarre’s brother, who had lived in the duplex unit neighboring their own for 10 years until he also lost his housing.
Under a nearby picnic shelter, Garr White, 43, idled time with a group of men while others charged their electronics in the shelter’s electrical outlet. White, who grew up in Kansas and Minneapolis, said he’d been living on the streets for nine years, and resided in an encampment along Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis for three or four years before it was cleared out. He then relocated to Snelling Avenue in St. Paul some months ago.
“I just got out here myself,” White said, “but this ain’t my first rodeo.”
ASSISTANCE AND OPPOSITION
Another man, shirtless and heavily tattooed from his waist to his face, said he too had just moved into the park. He called the environment peaceful and safe.
LaBarre said his pre-teen daughter appears to have taken tent living in stride, almost like camping, but there are moments that pierce through the relative tranquility. Pedestrians sometimes traipse through the park at night, noisy and intoxicated.
Leading up to the city’s recent decision to clear Newell Park, the growing encampment had drawn a gamut of reaction from nearby homeowners and others in the Hamline-Midway community.
“Yes, this encampment had neighbors who were frustrated and called in reports; some called police,” Donovan said. “The site also attracted people offering support, including today, when one volunteer brought a vehicle to help transport folks to their destinations.”
One woman in particular had stood at the edge of the park in recent days handing out fliers critical of their presence, Moldenhauer recalled, and sometimes peered into tents as if checking for illicit activity.
“The lady was taking pictures of my son and said, ‘Look what you’re doing! You’ve started a trend!’ ” Moldenhauer said. “The lady was (saying), ‘You aren’t from here!’ Actually, we are.”
Other neighbors had taken up their cause on social media, creating a Facebook page — “Hamline Midway Neighbors Helping Homeless Neighbors” — to plead for food and clothing on their behalf, among other calls to action.
“They’re really working to find supplies,” said Sarah O’Brien, executive director of the Hamline-Midway Coalition, on Thursday morning. “They’ve been giving updates on the human side of people being unhoused, and what their specific needs are. There’s some neighborhood concern, as well as the neighborhood wanting to help out.”
O’Brien, a former spokesperson and fundraiser for an Eagan-based food shelf, noted a smaller encampment has also opened at Hamline Park, located at Snelling and Thomas avenues.
Moldenhauer said that in late July, a Ramsey County social worker arrived at Newell Park and helped ease issues with the police, who at first seemed resolute about moving inhabitants out of the area. Before long, her family had signed up for SNAP public food assistance and were packing their things to relocate to Project Home.
“They really came through,” said Moldenhauer, referring to county officials. “It was scary in the beginning, but … the social worker, she was wonderful.”
LaBarre on Thursday said things were looking up, and he had scheduled a meeting with a housing coordinator in hopes of finding a more permanent living situation.
“The kids are great,” he said. “For a shelter, no complaints.”
Surrounded by loosely-packed personal effects, his brother, Joe LaBarre, stood shirtless on the edge of the Newell Park parking lot on Thursday afternoon with his girlfriend, contemplating next steps. There were nearby woods they could take up residence in. Or maybe it was time to head out farther afield of what had been home. Their options seemed limited. And endless.
“I’ve got to find a place,” he said.