Advocates call for more resources for homeless as winter weather nears

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Saturday’s weather was picture perfect with blue skies and temperatures in the 60s.

But Bishop Harding Smith is already thinking about the cold weather season and its impact on people living outside.

"I have been through some brutal winters as a homeless person,” Smith says.

He escaped living on the street back in 2005 and now works as an advocate for those experiencing homelessness and substance abuse issues.

“We are calling for an end to homelessness everywhere,” Smith said. “We’re calling on our governor to put more resources into housing our people — that’s why we’re here today.”

Smith is among a group of advocates, political leaders and activists who met Saturday outside the Salvation Army shelter on Currie Avenue in Minneapolis trying to raise awareness about National Homeless Day.

Experts say there are about 1,000 people experiencing homelessness in the Twin Cities, but they fear that number is higher after a pandemic year-and-a-half.

“Everyone deserves a safe place,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told the group. “Everyone deserves respect.”

In the past year, Minneapolis and Hennepin County have invested nearly $27 million to expand shelter and street outreach services.

That’s helped to provide an additional 200 shelter beds, but not everyone wants to use them.

“There were times I chose to sleep outside, at the bus stop, where I knew it was light,” says Darrell Warren, who is now living in a Salvation Army shelter.

Warren says he’s been living outdoors in Minneapolis on and off for the last six months after moving from Hibbing. He adds he’s had to make the hard choice to sleep outside or stay in a shelter, where he could potentially make contact with other people.

"Sometimes where we’re doing the COVID thing, you know, I was kind of leery about staying inside,” he said. “I’d want to stay outside. Didn’t know if people were tested or not."

During the gathering, hot meals and even haircuts were made available.

There are concerns more people may be living outside, even as weather conditions get colder.

Smith says he’s tried to help with holiday giveaways of cold weather clothes, hand sanitizer and even cash.

“It has been pretty brutal,” he said. “We’ve been giving out gloves, giving out winter jackets. Some of our people who today are homeless, they’re looking for people to believe in them. They are struggling.”

For some, the economy isn’t much help.

"I think it’s getting more acute because of the economic conditions of the country,” said Dr. Chike Omykaba, who works at a Brooklyn Park health clinic that treats those experiencing homelessness or dealing with substance abuse.

"A lot of people have lost their jobs, a lot of people are stressed with the COVID,” he added. “People are also stressed so they’re on drugs. In some cases, you’re homeless, you don’t have a job."

Warren says he’s lucky to have Zena, his service dog, as a companion and a place to sleep at the Salvation Army.

“She has been a good help,” he smiles. “For me to keep my mental health situation, because I have PTSD and seizures. (Here) I have a shower, have a meal where they have sandwiches and bag lunches and stuff like that.”

Smith says with all the challenges ahead, he hopes political leaders and the community will be willing to step up.

“A few years ago, George Floyd was right here with us, helping to feed the homeless,” he recalled. “This is a legacy we’re carrying on. We need to do a better job concerning our homeless people, and it starts now.”