Hiawatha encampment: Lessons in unintended consequences

This is the first in a series looking back at the 2018 homeless encampment along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues.

David Hewitt, Director of the Office to End Homelessness in Hennepin County, recalls attending a meeting of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in July of 2018 where the topic of conversation turned to the challenges of large homeless encampments.

Hewitt recalls saying the county had issues with homeless people riding the transit system as a form of shelter, “but we don’t have large encampments in Minneapolis.”

That was about to change.

Hiawatha/Franklin encampment. (Photo courtesy of Hennepin County.)

The Twin Cities area always has had homeless encampments, especially in the summer months. But until last year’s Hiawatha encampment, 10 to 15 people was considered a large encampment, Hewitt said.

When such camps pop up, landowners periodically have them cleared out. (This can be a temporary solution. Often after such evictions, people eventually move back.)

From April to July in 2018, there were roughly 10 to 15 people camping on the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) right of way in the Hiawatha/Franklin area on any given day. Most if not all in the camp were Native Americans.

MnDOT had the camp cleared a few times in the first half of 2018, Hewitt said. Because even small encampments can create a lot of trash and waste, MnDOT also needed to clean up the area. Because this particular camp had a high number of injection drug users, the trash included used needles.

During the July clean-up, crews not only cleared the trash but also removed the undergrowth and bushes where debris had accumulated along the right of way. That had an unintended consequence: Clearing the land made it easier for a lot more people to camp there.

“When tents started coming back, they kept coming,” Hewitt said.

In the first week of August, there were 30 structures, the next week 60 structures, and the next week more than 100 structures. “By the end of August, we were up to that 150-structure range,” Hewitt said.

This was rapidly becoming a crisis demanding an immediate response from local governments and non-profits. The encampment was near a busy road, a dangerous spot. And the more people moved in the tents got closer to the road.

People at the encampment were vulnerable, with high levels of chemical dependency and mental health needs. The encampment also attracted drug dealers. (Minneapolis City Councilmember Cam Gordon, who chairs the Council’s Housing Policy and Development Committee, said one of the Hiawatha encampment’s lessons was that the opioid crisis was probably a bigger deal than leaders had understood.)

Living in such tight quarters, diseases could spread quickly, too.

Red Lake’s camp survey in early October found 191 people staying there, including 30 minor age children. The camp was no place for children.

“There was a lot of pressure to throw services at the encampment,” Hewitt said.

As government agencies and non-profit organizations mounted a large response, another unintended consequence emerged: By increasing the services at the encampment, it became a magnet for anyone seeking services, he said. A number of the families left shelters to go to the encampment believing they could get housing more quickly there.

“So we had families leaving relatively safe and stable situations [in shelters] and exposed themselves to extreme risk, in an extremely unsafe environment, because there was the perception that developed that this is where you were going to get housing,” Hewitt said.

And time to find solutions was short. Winter wasn’t far off.

Next in the series: Hiawatha Encampment: Lessons learned.

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