In a show of defiance, dozens of American Indian community members returned to a former homeless encampment in south Minneapolis late Friday, declaring their reoccupation of the site a protest to demand more emergency shelter beds and fewer barriers to housing.
Just past midnight, about 50 protesters walked through a gap in the metal fence along Franklin Avenue and reoccupied the site. Amid blowing snow, they erected a teepee at the center of the former encampment.
Police circled the site in vehicles but did not intervene.
“The mayor said this is Dakota land, so how is this trespassing?” asked Shawn Phillips, the church’s pastoral minister and one of the action’s organizers.
Participants read a statement calling on the city to do yet more to help homeless people, especially those who are American Indians.
The planned protest would come nearly a year after Minneapolis police and public works crews cleared out the camp near the Little Earth housing project that was once home to several hundred people and erected concrete blockades and a chain-link fence to keep people from returning to the site.
The site, known as the “Wall of the Forgotten Natives,” was one of the largest and most visible homeless settlements ever seen in Minnesota, and it focused new attention on the growing population of people sleeping outside in parks, under bridges and in buses or vehicles across the Twin Cities metro area.
“We need permanent solutions to what has become a permanent problem,” said Keiji Narikawa, a Native community member who was active at the Wall of the Forgotten Natives, ahead of Friday’s protest.
“The Band-Aids, the lip service, the ‘10-year plan’ to end homelessness ... none of that has accomplished anything,” Harikawa said. “We’ve got relatives that are dying out here in the cold and they need a warm place to go at night.”
Many efforts underway
The affordable-housing crisis, which became starkly visible at the homeless encampment last fall and winter, has not gone unanswered by elected state and county leaders.
This week, after months of study and consulting with people who are homeless, the Hennepin County Board approved an unprecedented expansion of the city’s emergency system of overnight shelter beds for adults.
Responding to a sharp rise in the county’s homeless population, the board approved $1.1 million in new annual spending to create a 30- to 50-bed shelter for women and expanded case management services in the larger shelters to help longer-term homeless move faster into stable housing.
Some funding will also go to the shelter at First Covenant Church in downtown Minneapolis to convert about 50 single beds into spaces for partners.
The county spends about $4 million a year to support facilities that provide emergency overnight shelter for 893 single adults. On a typical night, however, nearly all these shelter beds are occupied, which means that some people are turned away, say county officials.
“We have not seen this level of investment ever before” in the emergency shelter system, said David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. “It is a response to the increased number of people on the streets, as well as the realization that people are being trapped out of the housing market. We need a robust response, and shelter is a vital component to that.”
Hennepin County’s number of unsheltered individuals reached 732 people in July, up 40% from 523 individuals a year earlier, according to the county’s most recent point-in-time count. Officials attribute the increase to rising rents and a severe lack of affordable housing.
The crisis has disproportionately affected vulnerable adults with mental health problems and disabilities. Of the unsheltered population in Hennepin, nearly half report a mental illness and more than a quarter have a physical disability, according to the most recent count.
In the immediate term, members of the Twin Cities Indian community said the new measures do not go far enough to expand the capacity of the shelter system.
Native leaders also object to what they said are increasingly aggressive efforts to forcibly remove people attempting to sleep in public spaces, including Metro Transit buses and under highway bridges. In August, Metro Transit shut down all-night service on the Green Line, which connects downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, displacing dozens of people who use the train as a shelter at night.
As recently as this week, crews with the Minnesota Department of Transportation evicted several people who were sleeping under the Interstate 94 bridge across from the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
Site called ‘symbolic place’
In late November, a small crowd of Native community members marched to the site of the former encampment, pounding drums and burning sage as they walked past the Little Earth project.
At that ceremony, several leaders of the group threatened to cut through the chain-link fence that surrounds the site and pitch tents, if city and county officials ignored their demands for more permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness.
“This is a symbolic place,” said Narikawa, gesturing at the closed encampment. “Since the Wall of the Forgotten Natives closed, resources have left and we’re back to zero.”