Leaders in the Twin Cities' American Indian community are strongly condemning a street outreach group associated with a south Minneapolis homeless camp for "unacceptable, deplorable" actions that have triggered complaints from other nonprofits working there.
The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, which represents the heads of three dozen metro-area Indian organizations and tribal offices, issued a statement Friday accusing Natives Against Heroin (NAH) of "divisive words and actions" that have "disempowered and created fear among many of the camp residents."
"NAH's behavior and tactics have the effect of dividing our community, creating distrust, suspicion and fear, and are not Indigenous values," said the group, which has helped coordinate outreach and services for people living at the large encampment along Hiawatha and Cedar avenues.
The coalition also accused NAH leaders of intentionally disrupting efforts to move camp dwellers to a new emergency shelter by the end of next week and of encouraging racial divisions between camp residents and outreach workers who bring support to the camp, according to the statement.
The statement comes amid a chorus of complaints concerning members of NAH, a loose-knit group of volunteers that has provided security and donations at the camp, but which sometimes uses combative tactics to disrupt drug dealing in the Indian community. The group has maintained a highly visible presence at the homeless camp since August, rescuing people who have overdosed, breaking up fights and kicking out drug dealers, while distributing food, tents, firewood and other provisions to camp residents. The group has also built teepees and wigwams, and distributed propane heaters to help keep residents warm as temperatures have plunged.
In recent weeks, however, humanitarian aid workers with several nonprofits said they have become afraid to set foot in the camp and deliver assistance because of harassment and threats from a handful of NAH volunteers. Some camp residents also have complained of abuse. Two homeless men left their tents and fled this week, citing threats of violence and intimidation. One man filed a police report, alleging that an NAH member wrongly accused him of being a police informant and then threatened to torch his tent with him inside.
According to the Indian directors' group, the actions by NAH have sowed fear and disrupted the delivery of food, beverages and donated goods to the camp residents.
James Cross, founder of NAH, disputed claims that his group has discouraged people from moving to the new shelter, while defending the actions of his volunteers, who he said have to protect the camp against people trying to exploit residents. At the same time, Cross said he expects some people will stay at the homeless camp even after the new shelter opens, and NAH will continue to have a presence so long as people remain, he said.
As he walked through the camp Friday, Cross made it clear that NAH volunteers would maintain its visible presence, regardless of whether other nonprofits supported their efforts.
"Wherever our people move, NAH will be there to help," Cross said. "We'll make sure they have heaters and tarps and whatever they need to make it through the winter. Whether they're living under bridges, down alleys or in crack houses, we'll be there with them."
Still, the discord threatens to complicate efforts to move approximately 100 people still living at the homeless camp to an emergency shelter by the end of next week. A coalition of city, county and Indian agencies has been trying to encourage residents of the camp to move to the nearby shelter, which will consist of three large, heated tents on land owned by Red Lake Nation. Despite the onset of frigid temperatures, a number of people at the camp have said they have no plans to leave and prefer the independence of living on the streets to organized shelters.
Dubbed a "navigation center," the new site is being designed with the explicit aim of creating few barriers to people who need a home: Residents would be allowed to bring their pets, belongings and partners, and they can stay 24 hours a day while obtaining services such as mental health counseling intended to help them get off the streets. Residents who are inebriated or under the influence of illegal drugs will be allowed to stay in the center. There will be no curfew.
City officials said they expect people will start moving into the new shelter as early as Tuesday.