Ellen Dick had already survived a winter sleeping under bridges and near the railroad tracks in downtown Minneapolis without falling into relapse. It had been 11 months since she had touched a drug of any kind, her longest stretch in years.
Yet the 43-year-old mother of six said she recalled feeling “an overwhelming desire to get high” last month within hours of arriving at a sprawling homeless encampment in south Minneapolis, where drug overdoses are an almost daily occurrence. The sight of so many users and dealers, some calling out what drugs they had to offer, unleashed her old cravings as she struggled to pitch a tent in the driving rain.
“All I could think was, it would be so easy to get high right now and make all the stress go away,” Dick said.
Dick is among dozens of women and men struggling with addiction who face the formidable challenge of staying sober at a homeless camp where squalid conditions and rampant drug use heighten the dangers of relapse. They came seeking refuge from the stress and violence of living on the streets, only to find themselves immersed in the sights and sounds of the very lifestyles they are trying to escape. Inhabitants here say the intense conditions at the camp — including the frequent blare of ambulance sirens, the sight of people overdosing and the daily struggle to stay warm amid the frigid temperatures — can induce sudden stress and trigger a relapse.
Homeless outreach workers estimate that up to a third of the estimated 200 people now living at the camp have histories of substance use but are struggling to stay on the path to recovery.
“It takes incredible strength and character and resilience to stay sober in that environment, which should be celebrated,” said Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis, which provides support groups and treatment services for women struggling with addiction. “Temptations are everywhere.”
The campsite that began early this summer with a couple dozen tents on a narrow strip of land near the Little Earth housing project has swelled into a small tent city complete with a community billboard, canvas teepees with campfires, on-site medical care and daily meals animated by ceremonial drumming, songs and prayer. There are entire sections of the camp inhabited by multigenerational Indian families who share food, blankets and clothing by day while watching over one another at night. And their numbers continue to grow: new tents blanket nearly every square foot of the encampment and are now close to spilling into the busy traffic on E. Franklin Avenue.
“This is our Standing Rock,” said Desi Gokey, 54, a musician who lives in a small tent near the center of the camp. “You can get stronger out here if you learn how to push away all the negative spirits.”
But in recent weeks, this once-cohesive community of tent dwellers has begun to fracture. One end consists mostly of Indians and their extended families, while the other end (nearest to East Phillips Park) has more drug use and altercations at night. Some families said they have become afraid to venture to the other side of the camp after dark because it is frequented by drug dealers. Straddling the two sides of the camp is a large tent operated by the street outreach group Natives Against Heroin (NAH), whose small army of red-shirted volunteers has become a de facto security force, breaking up fights and rescuing people who have overdosed.
“You gotta bring your recovery ‘A game’ if you want to stay strong out here,” said Fabian Jones, a volunteer for NAH and a recovering drug user. “You can see it in their eyes that a lot of people are struggling.”
With cold weather setting in, the Minneapolis City Council early this month passed an emergency measure intended to speed up the relocation of people living at the encampment to a nearby site owned by Red Lake Nation. The band plans to erect a series of connected trailers at the site, which is just a few blocks east of the camp, to shelter up to 150 people. However, the site will not be ready until early December because several buildings need to be demolished.
In the meantime, Red Lake Nation leaders said they have plans to erect larger, heated tents at the existing camp along Hiawatha Avenue; these would replace dozens of smaller tents that have become tattered in the wind and lack insulation.
“Winter is coming, and we absolutely have to get people into safer conditions,” said Sam Strong, secretary of the Red Lake Nation, as he toured the site Thursday.
‘It can be stressful out here’
It was 2:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and the sound of people yelling, “O.D.! O.D.! O.D.!” punctuated the frigid air outside the row of tents.
A half-dozen people had rushed to a tent where a young man had just overdosed on what appeared to be synthetic heroin. It would take nine doses of Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids, to bring the man back to life in his tent. Suddenly, he bolted upright and dashed out of the encampment, running past a site where a woman had died just four days earlier from a drug overdose. In almost eerie silence, the crowd gradually dispersed back to their tents as if nothing unusual had happened.
But not everyone went back to sleep. All through the night, a steady procession of people — silhouetted against the glow of the streetlights — stumbled down the sloping sidewalk that intersects the camp. A few men who appeared inebriated collapsed in the mud by a smoldering campfire. Each time a large truck roared by the camp, the ground would shake beneath the tents, making a full night’s sleep difficult for newcomers not used to sleeping alongside a busy highway.
For Ellen Dick, the recent sight of a woman at the camp being placed on a stretcher and given oxygen by paramedics was enough to bring back traumatic memories. Two years ago, Dick was cooking Indian tacos and fry bread for her brother Shane at their mother’s home in Little Earth when she heard the sound of screaming from her brother’s room. Dick rushed upstairs to find Shane’s lifeless body slouched in the doorway from a drug overdose. “I kept yelling, ‘Shane, don’t go! Wake up! Wake up!’ ” she said. “But he collapsed in my arms.”
Her brother’s overdose death sent Dick into a downward spiral of crack and methamphetamine use, which culminated in her arrest last year on drug charges and a five-month jail sentence.
“I started getting high because I didn’t want to feel and I didn’t want to think,” Dick said. “Seeing that woman who O.D.’d caused all the bad memories to come rushing back, and I got really choked up. It can be stressful out here.”
Like many people at the camp, Dick attends recovery meetings several times a week and has developed coping strategies — including prayer and slow breathing exercises — for preventing a relapse. Most of the time, when the urges return, the solution is in her pocket. Dick reaches for her cellphone and flips through images of her beloved 26-month-old granddaughter, Maricela, who lives nearby in Little Earth.
“This is what keeps me going,” Dick said, pointing to a photo of Maricela in a pink outfit. “I look at how beautiful she is, and I think about all that I would miss if I messed up and got high.”
As she spoke, a younger cousin arrived at her tent, yelling, “Hey, Cuz!” The two giggled and hugged as the sound of distant drumming echoed through the camp at dusk.