The seat of a bike is a great way to really see the harsh realities of a city. Here’s what one broker observed as she biked her way along homeless encampments.

Owning real estate is everything — even if that piece of real estate isn’t a luxury property and is located near the downtown area of a city that’s broke during a pandemic.

In addition to working, I’ve spent a lot of time reading this summer. One of the books I read was Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. The book is about older Americans who live in vans, campers, trucks and cars.

The nomads never really recovered from the Great Recession and the crash of the housing market. They lost their homes, jobs and savings, too. Some had their hopes and dreams crushed by medical bills.

Some work as campground hosts when they can, and others work in Amazon warehouses during the holiday rush. Amazon calls them the “CamperForce.” They’re given a campsite where they can stay while they work. The work is described as physically demanding and monotonous. Their work helps keep prices down for the rest of us.

There are events and even classes for the nomads where they can learn the best practices for a nomadic lifestyle in an unmarked white van. Those vans can really blend into a suburban or urban landscape.

On July 1, I started “55 days of biking.” As I ride my bike along the trails that run through the city, I started noticing vans and campers parked in various locations. Several of them appear to be occupied. The windows are covered so no one can see inside.

It was just reported in our local newspaper that the city is going to “clean out” the large homeless camp along the freeway. It keeps growing and growing. The news story says that 72 people live there now.

When I bike along the trails by the river and through the woods, I see tents here and there through the trees and larger encampments near downtown. For a time, there was a homeless camp right in a city park downtown. It was filled with people and tents, and the few trash cans there overflowed.

Many of us saw it — but no one wanted to complain. People started complaining when the drug dealers came in. The police occupied the park for several days. Now, when I ride by, I see that it’s almost empty, and there are several trash cans and containers for recycling.

Neighbors often complain about the trash in and around the homeless camps. I’ve noticed that the camps are rarely located near trash cans. If there is one in the area, it’s almost always overflowing.

We’ve been having an unusually warm summer. We’ve had several “extreme heat” advisories. All of the water features, fountains and faucets in the city parks have been turned off because of COVID-19.

There are no facilities for the homeless. Since the pandemic, the few public restrooms in the area have been closed, and there aren’t even port-a-potties in parks or along bike trails.

I’ve ridden my bike close to 900 miles in the last 55 days. I know the location of several homeless camps that are along the seams, and in the cracks and gullies that are also near the bike trails. In the early morning, some have cooking fires. I can smell coffee, and one morning, I was sure I could smell bacon.

There is a campsite right next to one of the entrances to the freeway. As I rode by one day, I saw a young woman sitting out in front of the tent reading a book.

The campgrounds will start to shrink in size as the weather cools. Some of the residents will be sheltered in various homeless shelters and in buildings downtown. Others will stay in tents all winter. There will be larger tent camps next year as housing prices rise. When I hear on the news about how well the stock market is doing, I often wonder how the campers are reacting to it.

Housing is expensive, and even now, prices are going up. Lack of affordable housing is one of the main reasons why people are homeless. You may not see people living in tents in your neighborhood, but there are people you don’t notice who live in cars, vans and campers.

At the end and the beginning of each month, I ride by the dumpsters that are filled with furniture and household possessions. I know it’s moving day, and that there isn’t any way for the campers to take the furniture with them. Sometimes, it’s the property owner who has the household moved into the dumpster.

We often say that people are homeless because they use drugs or because they suffer from mental illness. I’ve never been clear on which comes first — the homelessness or the mental illness and chemical dependency.

I’m told that some people choose to live in tents. I think the people who live in the vans and campers chose to live that way, but I don’t think it’s because it was the most attractive of a limited set of options. It is probably the same for tent-dwellers. They may not have many options.

When someone figures out the best way to make money from affordable housing, it will be everywhere except for areas where zoning laws forbid it. Every idea I’ve ever heard for a design for affordable housing doesn’t work with current zoning laws or with our building codes.

The seat of a bike is a great way to really see a city especially along the edges and the seams — the places that we don’t see everyday and can usually avoid.

Teresa Boardman is a Realtor and broker/owner of Boardman Realty in St. Paul. She is also the founder of StPaulRealEstateBlog.com.

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