BLOOMINGTON — When the wind chill dipped into double digits below zero recently, the 14 occupants of an encampment on the city’s west side stayed inside their makeshift homes, warming themselves with portable heaters until the fuel ran out.
The size of the group living in tents is larger than in previous winters, said Lori Kimbrough, homeless services supervisor with PATH (Providing Access to Help).
A lack of affordable housing in the Twin Cities is a major contributor to the situation, said Kimbrough, who visited the homeless camp Monday with a mobile health clinic.
Last summer, three tent cities were set up on the city's west side with about 30 chronically homeless people. The homeless outreach work at PATH is aimed at bringing the chronically homeless off the street, said Kimbrough.
Local churches have provided propane, clothing and other supplies to the group of 10 men and four women.
Life in the tent city is challenging.
“I ran out of propane at 12:30. We really don’t want to be sleeping in a cold tent,” said Ronald, one of three men who agreed to talk to The Pantagraph if his full identity was not disclosed.
The 37-year-old homeless man shares a tent with two other men. He hasn’t worked in a decade and the job prospects are not improving.
“I’m here because I don’t have a job. Nobody will let me show them how hard a worker I am,” said Ronald, who has worked as a roofer, a janitor and restaurant employee. Before he came to the tent city, he was staying in parking garages.
Ronald, Gary and Tony all live in tents tucked under a row of trees on private property behind the former Bloomington bus station near West Market Street.
Tony has lived in the tent city off and on since May.
“I had a fiancee and she died. I just gave up on things,” said the 47-year-old.
Life on the streets sometimes comes at the end of a rocky road, said Gary.
“Most of us are highly educated and certain things have just happened in our lives,” said Gary, who has a tent next to Tony.
Tony unzips his tent a few inches, enough to allow him to carry on a conversation and still keep the heat from two kerosene heaters trapped inside.
Eventually, Tony would like to get back into hotel management, his career before he became homeless. A job search can be complicated for a person living in a tent, he said.
Despite the numerous hardships, there is a freedom that comes with living on the street that many people cannot relate to, said Tony, who puts his ability to come and go above a warm bed.
“Shelters are more like a jail, a prison. You have to live under their rules. This is just a better scenario,” he said.
For Ronald, a criminal history keeps him from living in a shelter. He said his probation officer is aware of his living arrangement."
Kimbrough said certain offenses, including sex crimes, have left many people with few good housing options.
The tent city includes four sex offenders whose housing options have left them literally out in the cold, she said.
Bloomington police officers check on the sex offenders and require them to register weekly with the police department.
Some of the homeless may not qualify for public housing and others lack money to pay the rent, said Kimbrough.
Mental health issues may be a barrier for the local homeless population that PATH estimates is between 220 and 240 people.
"They may be diagnosed or undiagnosed with a mental illness but there's usually some type of traumatic event that lead them to where they are," said Kimbrough.
The public's perception of homelessness also can be a barrier to securing community support, according to Kimbrough.
"These are not people who are just lazy and are choosing to be homeless. They are choosing the tent from the housing options available to them," she said.
PATH staff is also keeping an eye on a woman and her dog living in a tent in another remote area in Bloomington. Blankets, clothing and a sleeping bag have been left for the woman, who has chosen not to interact with people. Recently, a second tent went up near her.
"We have no idea who's living there," said Kimbrough.