Hiawatha encampment: Lessons learned from last year’s homeless tent city

This is the second in a series looking back at the 2018 homeless encampment along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues. Part 1 explored the reasons the camp formed when it did: Hiawatha encampment: Lessons in unintended consequences.

Photo of the encampment. (Hennepin County)

In August of 2018, a large homeless encampment — reaching 150 tents and more than 190 people — sprung up along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues in south Minneapolis. Most of those in the camp were Native Americans — and it was key that Native American led-organizations played a lead role in responding.

Patina Park, President and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, recalled conversations about the camp in early August, 2018 with Mike Goze, CEO of the American Indian Community Development Corporation (AICDC), Mary LaGarde, executive director of the Minneapolis American Indian Center (MAIC),  Dr. Antony Stately, CEO of the Native American Community Clinic, and Robert Lilligren, President and CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute.

They had concerns about the looming health care crisis, Park said. Hepatitis A was going around, and they were concerned about MRSA, too, an antibiotic-resistant infection. People were crowded together in the encampment and disease could spread quickly. One of the first things the group did was get fresh water to the camp by getting the city to hook up a water station at a fire hydrant.

Their work grew quickly. “I really learned the power of all of us coming together and just doing it,” Park said.

Hiawatha encampment. (Photo: Hennepin County)

AICDC, which had property near the camp, established a Hygiene Service Area, a temporary structure for showers and a central hub for health care and service providers. MIWRC had outreach workers in the camp helping people connect with housing and other resources. MAIC provided meeting space and gave out food vouchers for its Gatherings Cafe to be distributed to those in the encampment.

David Hewitt, Director of the Office to End Homelessness in Hennepin County, coordinated the public sector response, including providing resources to indigenous-led organizations. The county also had staff on site, helping assess camp residents for chemical dependency treatment programs.

To address the approaching winter, Minneapolis approved $1.5 million for temporary housing for those in the camp, which became known as the Navigation Center. It was erected in eight weeks on land owned by the Red Lake Nation; the Center opened in December. It’s goals were to provide a safe place to sleep for those at the encampment, to make it as welcoming and dignified as possible, and to help people find stable housing.

Here are lessons learned (or relearned) from the encampment and Navigation Center:

Resources matter: The housing placements for homeless people at the Navigation Center were better than the results from traditional emergency shelters.

Initial numbers showed that nearly 50 percent of those staying at the Navigation Center got housing placements, Park said. That’s successful compared to the emergency shelter system where fewer than 10 percent of people leave with a housing placement.

While getting good data on long-term success of housing placements is difficult, Park said even if the Navigation Center had a 30 percent success rate it would be good. It shows that kind of coordinated approach is going to work.

The Navigation Center’s success rate is even more impressive considering that it served people with higher needs than are typically seen at an emergency shelter. “The concentration of needs, particularly around chemical dependency and mental health, was much greater than any single site we had seen.” Hewitt said.

There is a need for more shelter options

Photo courtesy of Hennepin County.

There were a number of people from the encampment who got into emergency shelters who eventually went back to the encampment.

Park said the response she heard was: “I don’t know what’s wrong with those people?” Instead, she said, the question should have been: “What is so wrong with the shelter system that people would rather live in a tent next to the freeway than live in the shelter?”

Homeless people living on the streets lose autonomy when they go to an emergency shelter; they are treated like a grade schoolers, Park said. At shelters, unmarried couples can’t sleep together even if they have been partners for 20 years. Lights out at 10 p.m. No visitors.

The Navigation Center was a “low-barrier” shelter. Low barrier meant people could have pets, partners, and adult family members and could opt to sleep near one another. There was no curfew. People could stay even if they weren’t sober; on-site supports were available to help them stabilize and reduce their risk of harm. (One of the few rules was that violence was not tolerated.)

Native-led organizations played a key role in camp outreach and communications

Hewitt said that working with culturally-specific agencies was one of the big positives to come out of all the work. “We knew it would be hard for government agencies and non profits that were not part of the Native community” to be trusted, Hewitt said. “All of us knew the leadership had to come from the Native communities.”

As one example, AICDC had its own staff work at the Hygiene Service Area, staff who were Native American. That way, those coming for help “knew we were there as friends,” Goze said.

He said he felt the government sector embraced Native organizations as partners and that led to better outcomes.

Good Samaritans can do harm as well as good

Every day, many, many well-meaning people stopped at the camp to donate food, clothing, and other things such as propane tanks for heaters. Their generosity is to be applauded, Hewitt said. But it was counterproductive and added to the health and safety risks.

For instance, a fire broke out affecting 10 tents because someone used a donated propane tank on a heater it wasn’t designed for, Hewitt said. The heater couldn’t handle the pressure and it set off the fire.

The Metro Urban Indian Directors (MUID) set up FranklinHiawathaCamp.org to help coordinate donations. Native-led organizations dedicated staff to coordinate donations. “It was a never ending battle and we lost,” Park said.

The city had to bring in larger trash bins and do more frequent removal: “Thousands of pounds of trash were thrown away every day,” she said.

The influx of donations also fueled camp tensions, Hewitt said. Entire tents were filled with donations, and “the control over the flow of goods into the area became a source of conflict among the people staying there.”

The experience produced successful collaborations to build on

On Oct. 1, 2018, AICDC took a financial risk and bought a former transitional housing building, Hewitt said. Government agencies worked to help fast-track approvals; by mid-October state funding was in place to open 16 units of permanent supportive housing. Those units got filled by people from the encampment by the end of October.

“That was an example of a Native agency taking the lead, taking a risk and the county and the state saying ‘we are going to be as quick as we can to get the support you need,” Hewitt said. “It’s something we can learn from and take inspiration from.”

Next: Hiawatha Encampment: Questions moving forward

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