Sheila Delaney: Serving the Unsheltered

Individuals can feel insignificant in the face of complex issues like racism, climate change, and depressed economies. It is in partnership with others, however, that many of us find strength. Here are a few people on the ground that have been doing collaborative work.

For several years, Sheila Delaney has worked with people experiencing homelessness, starting with those facing housing barriers after being incarcerated. After the Drake Hotel fire in downtown Minneapolis on Christmas Day in 2019, she became focused as a navigator working with women, other hotels, and non-profits such as We Rise Leadership Collective to find safe shelter.

Because of pandemic concerns, shelters can take fewer people. Parks are also restricted to fewer than 25 tents, which are quickly reaching capacity. When you have thousands of people statewide looking for shelter, the relatively few number of beds and park encampment spaces is not adequate. In January 2020, before unemployment caused by COVID-19 made it even harder to pay rents, there were an estimated 8,000 unsheltered people in Minnesota, and only 54 percent were in shelters.

Delaney says, “No one is a hero in how we have been addressing the homelessness issue, including the volunteer corps. We are equally as culpable as the city.”

The urgency is to pull together a team to figure out how to get people indoors before winter.

Many unsheltered people are nervous about shelters, where there is a lack of privacy, safety, security, and respect for life choices, Delaney says. Family members cannot stay together unless they can prove a legal relationship, which excludes some partners. Those with chemical dependency are often left without long-term solutions. With COVID-19 economic displacement, unemployment benefits reduced, and evictions no longer outlawed, the crisis will only get larger in the coming months.

“When there are no options for someone to stay in a hotel or shelter,” Delaney says, “they are given a tent and driven to an encampment because there is nowhere else to go.”

At Powderhorn Park, there was a public outcry when some of the people remaining, from an original 100 or so, were forcibly removed by police. Bulldozers were on site. Delaney says people’s belongings were put in the trash. “It was horrible enforcement, for basically 15 people. The money they spent on that could have been used more effectively.”

There might have been precipitating concern about women’s safety and drug use, she says, but the effort by the community was both too much and too little.

“We need to first offer people better environments, connected to community and services they can opt to take advantage of — not be forced into — for case management, methadone treatment, and counseling.”

The sexual exploitation and trafficking that happens at some camps is “the worst part of this terrible situation,” she says. She also says putting people on buses to create a different encampment somewhere else is not a solution.

Delaney is working with others to develop indoor villages of 20 to 30 units, and moveable tiny homes. These will be places where people can feel respected and secure, with basic dignities in a controlled
environment, such as lockable doors and room for pets.

These low-barrier sites are being developed one at a time, funded by private donations and public funds. Delaney and a team is working on one that will house 97 people. An affordable housing space with 45 units is being developed by Peris Housing, partly for people who have been aged out of the foster care system. RS Eden is breaking ground on an 80-unit affordable housing complex in mid-October.

Related Stories

Huda Ahmed: Criminal Justice Reform

Ashli Henderson: After the Unrest

Visual Q&A: Sheila Delaney

Minnesota Women’s Press is creating Action = Change Guides about the homelessness issue, transforming justice, and reconstruction and recovery — but we cannot do this without financial support.

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Action = Change

Sheila Delaney: I urge calls to elected representatives to indicate that homelessness is an issue you care about.

In January 2020, pre-COVID, 15 volunteers from St. Stephen’s did an annual one-night count that showed nearly 8,000 people were homeless:

  • 54 percent were in emergency shelters
  • 43 percent consisted of families with children
  • 27 percent were under age 18
  • 65 percent were people of color
  • 297 were veterans