Hiawatha encampment: Last year’s tent city is a lesson in unintended consequences

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

In August of 2018, a homeless encampment exploded near the intersection of Hiawatha and East Franklin avenues in Minneapolis, reaching nearly 200 people at its maximum, mostly Native Americans.

Indigenous-led non-profits and the public sector sprang into crisis response. Minneapolis has long had a homeless people, some living in emergency shelters, others riding metro transit all night, and still others living outdoors. But Minneapolis had never had this kind of tent city before.

Perhaps the surprise is that it hadn’t happened before.

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

David Hewitt, Director of the Office to End Homelessness in Hennepin County, leads an city-county initiative to coordinate the homeless response system. The Twin Cities area always has had homeless encampments, especially in the summer months, he said.

But until last year’s Hiawatha encampment, 10 to 15 people was considered a large encampment.

When such camps pop up, landowners periodically ask police for help clearing them.

From April to July in 2018, there were roughly 10 to 15 people camping on the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) right of way near the intersection of Hiawatha and Franklin on any given day. MnDOT had the camp cleared a few times in the first half of 2018.

Even small encampments can create a lot of trash and waste. At this camp, part of the trash included used needles because some of the homeless people were injection drug users. During the July clean-up, crews not only cleared the trash but also removed the undergrowth and bushes where debris had accumulated., Hewitt said. That had an unintended consequence: Clearing the land made it easier for a lot more people to move in.

“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.”

This created a public health crisis demanding an immediate response from local governments and non-profits. The encampment was near a busy road, a dangerous spot. The more people moved into tight quarters, the greater danger of communicable disease outbreak.

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.

A 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 recalled.

It might not have been readily apparent to passers by, but the crisis had success moving people into housing. Hennepin County has a right to shelter policy for families, the only one in the state and one of only a handful in the country, Hewitt said. “We guarantee shelter for families. If the shelters are full, we voucher them into a motel. We set no limits. We have no wait lists.”

Over a four-week period in the fall, those responding to the crisis placed 28 families from the encampment into shelters, somewhere between 75 and 100 individuals, Hewitt said. During a similar period, 60-70 people were moved into supportive housing.

However, the camp’s population wasn’t static. While the number of people at the encampment on any given day peaked somewhere near 200, people were coming and going all the time, Hewitt said. Perhaps 400 to 600 homeless people passed through the encampment over time.

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

“So we had families leaving relatively safe and stable situations and exposed themselves to extreme risk, in an extremely unsafe environment,” he said.

The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC) was one of several indigenous-led organizations that played a key role responding to the crisis and providing outreach. Patina Park, MIWRC’s executive director, said she heard from staff that during sweeps of homeless people living on the streets in St. Paul,  people were being encouraged to go to Minneapolis “because they could get services and housing.”

Time to find solutions for those at the encampment was short. Winter wasn’t far off.

Next in the series: Hiawatha encampment: Lessons learned.

(Note: An earlier version of this blog was taken down to give more time for research and context for the series.)

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