Hiawatha encampment: The camp is gone. The problem’s still here

This is the third in a series looking back at the 2018 homeless encampment along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues. Part 1 was Hiawatha encampment: Last year’s tent city is a lesson in unintended consequences. Part 2 was Hiawatha encampment: Lessons learned from last year’s homeless tent city.

Fencing has been erected to prevent a return of a large homeless encampment at Hiawatha and Franklin. (Facing east on Franklin.)

In August of 2018, a large homeless encampment sprung up along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues in south Minneapolis, reaching 150 tents and nearly 200 people. Most of those in the camp were Native American. Indigenous-led nonprofits and government agencies mounted a crisis response. With the help from the Red Lake Nation, it included construction of the Navigation Center, a temporary structure to provide people at the encampment a safe and warm place to sleep during the winter and connections to housing services.

The Navigation Center is closed. The Minnesota Department of Transportation erected fences to prevent people from camping on its right of way at Hiawatha andHiawatha. It posted ‘No Trespassing” signs. The Minnesota Police Department has new policies to intervene early when homeless camps form so they don’t get big.

Yet just because the crisis is no longer visible doesn’t mean there isn’t a crisis.

“The problem is still here,” said Mary LaGarde, executive director of the Minneapolis American Indian Center. “We have people who are out on the streets,” she said. “The opium/heroin epidemic has not gone away.”

The winter cold and snow are back. Here’s a look at questions moving forward.

Indigenous leaders are wondering where the public commitment went to address the problem?

Last year’s encampment. (Photo: Hennepin County)

Last year’s homelessness crisis got pubic attention, resources followed. The coordinated service response by non-profits and the government showed greater success in getting homeless people moved into housing than the traditional emergency shelter system.

Mike Goze, CEO of the American Indian Community Development Corporation, played an important role in the crisis response to the encampment. Now, he says, it feels like the problem is “out of sight, out of mind.”

“I would have thought there would be more opportunity for the city and county and state to continue the effort,” he said.

The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID) has been working on plans around both housing issues and the opioid crisis: LaGarde, MUID’s vice chair, is involved in that work: “We are not seeing a lot of help from the city or the county right now,” she said.

Are new Minneapolis police protocols for clearing homeless camps effective?

The city has what is supposed to be a new and more compassionate approach to small homeless encampments. A designated police officer and an outreach worker visit the camps together, said City Council member Cam Gordon. People are not evicted on the spot. The team offers services. They explain why the homeless campers can’t stay. If people don’t leave after a certain number of warnings, solid waste comes and clears the area, he said. (The Minneapolis Police Department declined to answer questions about its policies.)

Both LaGarde and Patina Park, president and CEO of Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, said they have heard stories of people in these encampments having their things thrown in the garbage. It could be that some people in the camp weren’t present when the police warnings were given, LaGarde said.

Park said she’s heard police are more aggressive in responding to these homeless encampments, which she summed up as: “You can’t stay here. Here is your notice. You have to go.'”

(Last June, the StarTribune ran a piece Plan to let police shut down Minneapolis homeless camps draws opposition. Click on the link for details.)

Are the homeless services offered addressing the need?

The police/outreach worker team approach doesn’t appear to address the problem that current shelter options aren’t working for some people who choose to stay outside.

Traditional homeless shelters don’t provide much autonomy for guests. Unmarried couples can’t sleep together even if they have been partners for 20 years. The lights go out at 10 p.m. No one can have visitors. By contrast, the Navigation Center was a “low barrier” shelter, meaning people could have pets, partners, and adult family members sleep together, and there isn’t a curfew.

Park said the city should experiment with a tiny house community model with a Navigation Center approach with concentrated, culturally appropriate services. It would let people “have their own space and be treated like grown ups,” she said. (Current city codes do not permit tiny houses.)

Under current policies, closing small homeless camps doesn’t appear solve the problem, it just shifts the camps to a different properties.

What recourse do property owners with little money have to help with clean up?

Little Earth’s Neighborhood Early Learning Center in winter.

Homeless camps are a burden for property owners, and some don’t have the resources to pay for clean up. Particularly tragic is the impact on the playground area next to the Little Earth Neighborhood Early Learning Center where homeless people have slept overnight during warmer weather, LaGarde said.

The Neighborhood Early Learning Center is a part of Little Earth of United Tribes; LaGarde serves on the board. “Those kids can’t use the playground because it is littered with needles, littered with human feces and urine,” she said.

It’s going to take a lot of money to make the playground usable again — $135,000 to take out the wood chips, to clean it, to resurface it, and to fence it, LaGarde said.

Will public partnerships with organizations led by Indigenous and other marginalized communities continue to evolve and fundamentally change how services are provided?

There were, and are, bright spots to emerge from the encampment. This included public sector partnerships with indigenous-led organizations, such as the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and the American Indian Community Development Corporation. They are trusted in the Indian community and led outreach work at the encampment.

The county is moving towards requiring greater cultural competency in its grants, such as a recent Request For Proposals for “Supportive housing to address chronic homelessness,” said David Hewitt, Director of the Office to End Homelessness in Hennepin County. The application required organizations to describe their policies, strategies and service models and explain how they address racial disparities among those experiencing homelessness.

Is there political will to do more?

Without the large encampment — without a squeaky wheel — is there enough pressure on political leaders to address this problem?

“When it was in everyone’s face, it was a big thing,” said Goze of the American Indian Community Development Corporation. “As it went away, all of a sudden it is not as big of an issue.”

In early December last year, Mayor Frey was trying to calm the waters at a public meeting, as tensions grew at the homeless encampment. According to Star Tribune reporting:

Minneapolis has the chance to set a national precedent for handling homelessness, something other cities haven’t been able to do, Frey said.

“What will make this the first successful approach in the nation is that this [camp] is on Natives’ land, and it has been an entire Native community coming together … saying they deserve better,” Frey said.

A year later those words are still true. Minneapolis has a chance to set a national precedent for handling homelessness. And Native people do deserve better.

One thought on “Hiawatha encampment: The camp is gone. The problem’s still here

  1. […] This is the last in a series looking back at the 2018 homeless encampment along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues. Part 1: Hiawatha encampment: Last year’s tent city is a lesson in unintended consequences. Part 2: Hiawatha encampment: Lessons learned from last year’s homeless tent city. Part 3: Hiawatha encampment: The camp is gone. The problem’s still here. […]


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