A safe place for their belongings
Homeless people face a multitude of decisions every day that people who are sheltered rarely have to think about. Even the storage of personal effects is a decision with ripple effects that spill over into everything from job interviews to medical care.
To support homeless residents of Minneapolis, the city has followed in the footsteps of other cities like San Diego and Los Angeles by partnering with a local organization to pilot a storage program for the homeless. The pilot project comes as record numbers of people are homeless across the state.
The program allows people on the move to store their personal belongings in bins located in a secure room. Personal effects are saved in and out of the trash by employees of the Downtown Improvement District of Minneapolis, the city’s partner in the business. One-room operation is open for a few hours every weekday morning. Other than the pilot duration, there is currently no limit on how long items can be stored. To access the bins, users need only complete a simple one-page document. In order to make the program as accessible as possible, users do not need to provide any ID or housing status to store their belongings. Users load their items into the trash cans in front of staff, but are not asked to open their bags.
The $ 25,000 pilot project began earlier this year. Earlier this month, all 50 bins were full for two consecutive weeks, reports the Star Tribune – just before the new coronavirus outbreak hits. The facility is still open by appointment only, but had to cancel its regular hours after Governor Tim Walz’s shelter-in-place order.
Ben Shardlow, director of urban design for the Downtown Improvement District, cites the San Diego program launched in 2015 as inspiration. The Minneapolis Downtown Council, a member-based downtown business association, also released a 2025 plan in 2011 that included a goal to end street homelessness. Yet ending homelessness requires more than just overnight shelter.
“With the problem of homelessness, on the whole, there is so much focus on sleep and bed and not on appreciating the other functions that a household performs. One of those functions is a place for people’s things, their personal belongings, ”he says.
In order to kick off the program, the Shardlow Town Center Improvement District team partnered with the town to find unused town-owned space to house the pilot that would be centrally located and could be inclusive. “It got us to the facility where we are now,” he says of the space that was originally designed to be a transit store in the metro. “It was sort of hidden in plain sight.”
The storage room is staffed by members of the Downtown Improvement District Ambassador Program, who are usually responsible for watering the flowers and giving instructions. Shardlow’s hope was that a handful of employees would take the majority of the shifts and get to know the customers, and that’s exactly what happened. Staff got a glimpse of some of the city’s homeless storage needs, information Shardlow hopes to incorporate into a future more permanent storage solution, what that might look like.
“I can say that there is total political will to [the program] and for continuity. If the location needs to move, [we’ll be] making sure it is transparent to people receiving services, ”he says. Shardlow adds that “extending the hours east of the program is really on the table ”when thinking about what future more permanent iterations might look like.
Although the program is finally in its infancy, Shardlow came across powerful testimonials about how something as simple as a place to store things can help a homeless person’s experience. It’s easier to have a chance in a job interview when you don’t need to bring everything you have with you or store it in the bushes outside and worry about your only needs all the time.
Robert Kleen is an advocate for Street Voices for Change, groups of individuals who bring their personal experiences with homelessness to conversations and initiatives designed to address it. Kleen agrees that storage is a key part of supporting homeless people – in fact, he describes it as her main concern.
“When you don’t have all of your things with you, you’re free to go to a job interview or to an accommodation appointment or a doctor’s appointment,” he says. “If you carry your luggage with you into a doctor’s office, they immediately know you’re homeless. Then you get different care than ordinary people, so that’s what I’m trying to avoid. “
Today, in her interactions with other homeless people, Kleen directs them to the downtown storage facility whenever she has the chance. Shardlow hopes that such enthusiasm will propel the program into a more permanent future.
“His deceptively simple, ”he says. Plastic bins are not expensive. Finding a room in a parking ramp is not impossible. Not a single aspect is so complicated. I hope that we can use the political will and the Community will not to stop there.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally incorrectly stated that the Downtown Improvement District Ambassadors were volunteers. They are paid employees; the article has been corrected.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. His work has been featured in National Geographic, US News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with an emphasis in Intervention Design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.