As football fans snap up St. Paul motels during Super Bowl weekend, some homeless families are facing relocation.
Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School serves about 600 students in a former high school building just north of downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.* About 70 percent of Wellstone students are learning how to speak, read and write English; more than 90 percent live in poverty. And a growing number of them are experiencing homelessness.
Ubax Jama, a paraprofessional teacher at Wellstone who has worked in the St. Paul Public Schools for 18 years, is familiar with the warning signs these kids display—students who are chronically late and tired, or who are always expressing hunger or hoarding food. “We have students who come in the morning and are immediately agitated,” she says. “The only moment they’re silent is when it’s time for them to eat. How can you expect them to sit down and learn?”
Thanks to Minnesota’s famously brutal winter temperatures, unsheltered homelessness represents a particular peril in the Twin Cities, especially for kids. As many as 2,000 St. Paul Public School students experience homelessness every year. Some of these kids spend the cold months in motel rooms: Through a school program called Project REACH that works to provide housing and support services for families in the St. Paul school district, this year Ramsey County set aside funding to rent out rooms in area motels between November and April, giving 15 St. Paul families somewhere to call home during the winter.
But then came the Super Bowl, and with crowds of Patriots and Eagles fans snapping up accommodations in Minneapolis and St. Paul this weekend, those families are now facing relocation, according to Project REACH supervisor Anne McInerney. “We’ve had families staying in cars, tents, and trains and buses, because shelters do not have the space for families with children.”
The number of homeless students in St. Paul and Minneapolis reflect the area’s affordable housing problem, which has seen rents skyrocket and the number of units available to low-income households to dwindle. In 2015, McInerney asked Department of Education and fire officials about the possibility of opening up the schools themselves for homeless families. Instead, the county agreed to fund housing for families in nearby motels.
But when discussion with the county came up about continuing to fund the use of the motels during the 10 days of Super Bowl LII’s takeover of the Twin Cities, the public funding wasn’t enough to compete with rising per-night rates to accommodate NFL fans. “What we’ve had to deal with here shines a light on the unintended consequences of this event,” says McInerney. “We don’t think of who’s getting displaced. Here’s a group of people who, had they not been in the motel, would be living out of their cars.”
The families now housed in motels are going through the process of being temporarily relocated, with some staying at churches in the area and others in shelters. To help address the Super Bowl week motel crunch, St. Paul Public Schools started an emergency initiative to aid families being relocated and they’re currently accepting funds and donations to provide shelter for students and transport them to and from school.
The kids of Wellstone Elementary are hardly the only vulnerable population feeling the impact of the big game: In Minneapolis, teams of outreach workers have been working to connect homeless with services (and keep them away from the throngs of visitors), and shelters have extended their hours today and Sunday; an emergency shelter was opened to house those who had been sheltering in First Covenant Church near U.S. Bank Stadium, which was closed due to security concerns. But this isn’t like the controversial “sweeps” of people living in homelessness that marked San Francisco’s Super Bowl hosting in 2016, said Gail Dorfman, director of St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis. “We’re not hiding our homeless population,” she told the Star-Tribune. “Our motivation was just to make sure they have access to resources and a place to go.”
The economic benefits of hosting mega-events like the Super Bowl are hotly contested; as CityLab’s Tanvi Misra argued in 2016, the burdens of disruption are often borne by low-income residents of the host city. To help offset the hit to Minnesota taxpayers, the NFL contributed $1 million to the Super Bowl Host Legacy Fund to build and renovate parks, athletic fields, playgrounds and community gardens across the state, with most of that money going to local nonprofits promoting health and fitness to children.
McInerney, whose Project REACH is funded by private donations, doesn’t dispute the economic boost that the game can deliver; she just wanted a better heads-up from the Super Bowl Host Committee. “More communication is all we would’ve asked for,” she says. “There are a lot of people who will benefit from the Super Bowl, from the state to businesses large and small. But there’s always going to be a group of people who it’ll be detrimental for. They need to ask themselves: What could we be missing?”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story inaccurately referenced Wellstone Elementary’s former location.