Advocates say more people experiencing homelessness are living in outdoor camps

The metro has experienced some of its coldest temperatures this past week, but even with the below-freezing temperatures, community advocates tell FOX 9 they are witnessing an unprecedented number of people experiencing homelessness choosing to stay outside during the cold.

"Normally during this time of year in the winter, we have a few dozen people that are homeless living outside, but this year we were up to 300 at one point,"  said Nick Gisi, director of the men’s campus for Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities.

Gisi said many feel safer outside because shelters are too crowded.

"They’re perceiving that living in a shelter - in a more communal living situation - is not safe so they'd rather spend the time outside," he added.

With job loss triggered by the pandemic, shelters across the metro are seeing more people requesting assistance.

"20 percent of the people that we’ve housed historically are seniors, and that number is just increasing because as our population ages, so do the people experiencing homelessness," said Trish Thacker, executive director of the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, Minnesota’s largest homeless adult outreach facility.

Pre-pandemic, Thacker said Harbor Light Center averaged between 400 and 440 people a night. To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the center has cut its beds down by half to practice social distancing.

Thacker said Harbor Light Center is working with Hennepin County leaders to help increase the number of beds across the county. The Salvation Army is currently in the process of finishing up construction on a large shelter for women.

In Saint Paul, local nonprofits are working with city leaders to get people indoors during the winter.

"In Minnesota, it’s simply isn’t reasonable or safe for people to be living in encampments outdoors," said City Councilmember Jane Prince, who represents Ward 7. "There have been dozens of fires and explosions from propane tanks that the fire department has responded to."

Prince said shelters are more accessible this year to people who may not have qualified before to deal with the demand.

"LBGTQ Couples, those who have pets, women, families - no matter who - they’re finding solutions to house them for the time being," said Councilmember Prince.

She said that adding more beds in shelters is a temporary fix, and the city has long terms goals of permanent solutions such as building more affordable housing to address the housing crisis.

Local nonprofits said that shelter and housing are just a few needs of many during this cold season.

They are asking residents for donations of socks, coats, hats, and gloves to help those experiencing homelessness stay warm.