St. Paul man doles out supplies from bus at encampments to ‘lessen the impact of homelessness’
"Hello camp, anybody home? It’s Todd with food and water, and clothes,” Todd Feske calls out while making the rounds in a homeless encampment in St. Paul’s Lower Landing Park.
"We’re not doing the full shopping thing, but I’ll give you something,” he says to one resident.
Feske, with the homeless advocacy group Walking With A Purpose, is trying to help people without shelter.
"You know it’s hard for someone to have hope if they don’t feel anybody cares about them,” he said.
The encampment appeared in June with four or five tents. Now there are a dozen.
"A lot of it keeps coming back to the real cause of the issue, and that’s affordable housing,” Feske said. “If there’s no place for them to go from the shelter, the shelters stay full. Right now we keep building more shelters.”
An estimated 19,000 Minnesotans are experiencing homelessness, even as the cold weather season approaches.
In St. Paul, officials confirm there are at least 362 people who are homeless.
At least once a week for the past year and a half, Feske has shown up at the park with his bus.
But he’s been visiting homeless sites since 2014. It all began with a personal journey of his own.
“Walking With A Purpose kind of comes from the way I got to where I’m at,” Feske said. “I got sober, lost a lot of weight, spent 10 years in the woods hiking. I walked around the woods around St. Paul here, and I came across the homeless camps. Instead of walking for the hell of it, I’m walking for a purpose now.”
The 65-year-old retired video producer and promotions vendor is a familiar figure here — along with his bus, packed with donated water, snacks, clothing, toiletries and medical supplies.
“Yeah, those are basic needs … keep your warm feet dry, pretty much happy,” says Byron Montgomery, who says he’s been homeless for several years. “Stuff like that is needed. People need to have some empathy because not all people that’s homeless are junkies or people that rob, steal and all that kind of stuff.”
Standing in the door of his bus — like a Walmart on wheels — Feske appears happy to be engaging with encampment residents and to be lending a hand.
“The idea is to lessen the impact of homelessness on people,” he said. “You age very rapidly out here. The average age where a person dies is 55. The average age of a former homeless person is 59.”
“Hi, what do you need, c’mon sir,” he calls out to one man.
“I got one jug of water, want to take it?” he asks a woman.
Among those waiting in line was Diane Solis, who’s called the encampment home since January.
“I like it. It helps out,” she says. “At least we have socks, warm socks… clothes, a first-aid kit.”
Experts say the pandemic and the economy are forcing more people into homelessness.
The city of St. Paul has a goal of sheltering 100 homeless people by Nov. 1.
Feske hopes his mission of giving is making a difference.
“If we can help by just giving them antibiotics and a Band-Aid, it doesn’t turn into major surgery,” he says. “Some hand warmers and gloves so they don’t get frostbite.”
Feske says he likes the concept of tiny homes — self-contained shelters designed to house people individually.
Church groups and the non-profit group Settled are building at least five of them in the metro area.
They are slated for completion in October.
"We can build them a structure, a nice safe home that is theirs,” Feske said. “They don’t have to worry about leaving."
St. Paul officials are now looking for properties that can hold groups of about 20 people at a time. There’s no word yet on specific locations or what services might be available.
One big problem is that social distancing is making housing space even more precious.
Feske and city leaders agree the biggest concern is to get the homeless off the streets before the severe weather hits.
But with winter approaching, he keeps on working.
"A lot of times people see a problem out there, they always think somebody else will take care of it,” Feske says. “I’m somebody.”