With the help of caring neighbors, a St. Paul mutual-aid group has raised $30,000 to directly help homeless community members — no questions asked.
St. Paul Camps Support has led supply drives and financial support collections for unhoused people in St. Paul since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. The group, which has since transitioned into a mutual-aid fund, is made up of a mix of people: professional mutual-aid practitioners, volunteers and students.
In 2020, St. Paul organizers commuted to Minneapolis to assist at large encampments in Powderhorn Park and other areas before turning to their own neighbors in St. Paul, said community engagement organizer Sean Lim.
“This group of amazing, talented folks quickly realized that there wasn’t really a similarly built-out encampment support network or collective servicing the needs of folks here in St. Paul,” Lim said.
They collected and distributed supplies including propane, winter clothing, food, tents, sleeping bags, hygiene products and cookware out of Caydence Records & Coffee on St. Paul’s East Side. As donations increased, the group found a home at the Minnesota Youth Collective office in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
Early in the pandemic, volunteers would go out in groups and ask individual homeless people what they needed, then compile lists and post them on social media, Lim said.
“It was really beautiful to see how social media was able to facilitate mutual aid and how neighborhoods would dedicate their time and energy and resources to ensuring that people do not freeze out in the cold,” he said.
But soon, that became a large task for a weary volunteer crew. This fall, St. Paul Camps Support voted to turn to direct mutual aid, a form of direct action and solidarity between neighbors. They collected the Venmo or CashApp accounts of their homeless neighbors, who would receive a deposit every two weeks, no questions asked, Lim said.
Whether the funds went toward hotel rooms, food or clothing, the group sent payments to those with active payment apps. A post on social media asking people to send funds to their neighbors went viral, giving the mutual-aid fund an initial boost.
“I don’t believe that anything similar has been done in the Twin Cities in recent history,” Lim said. “I think this was the first direct mutual-aid fund for unhoused neighbors with no strings attached.”
This week marks $30,000 raised since March 2021. At the fund’s height, volunteers distributed money to about 60 people every two weeks who received an even split of what was raised in that time. The fund now supports about 45 people who are homeless or were recently homeless. Payments can range from $10 to $150 per individual, Lim said.
The city of St. Paul tracks unsheltered people who are living in encampments, under bridges, in caves — places the city monitors and assesses. Data from Dec. 8 counted 21 people and 20 tents, according to St. Paul’s weekly encampment site tracker. But that is not the total number of unsheltered people in St. Paul.
St. Paul Camps Support aims to avoid some of the barriers to aid that some traditional nonprofits have by getting money directly to people, Lim said.
“People who have reached back out to us via [direct message], they’ve been like, ‘Thank you so much for this, I was able to get dog food for my dog’ or ‘I was able to get antibiotics for an infection I had’ or ‘I was able to get a few hot meals of my liking,'” Lim said. “It really does have an impact.”