Minneapolis city leaders want to relocate hundreds of people living at a large and growing homeless encampment in south Minneapolis to one or more provisional shelters with medical and social services by early October.
Several sites in the city are under consideration to hold the emergency shelters. About 300 men, women and children are currently living at the encampment along Hiawatha and Cedar avenues, near the Little Earth housing project. The temporary shelters would provide security and protect residents from the elements while a coalition of city, county and American Indian agencies continue efforts to find them permanent housing. City officials hope to transport residents and their belongings to the new site before cold weather sets in.
“The current location of the camp is simply not sustainable,” said Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, the city coordinator, at a City Council meeting Wednesday. “A, winter is coming. And B, it’s not safe.”
The city is looking at a range of provisional shelters, based on concepts tried in cities such as San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. Options include large, heated tents with cots; vacant warehouses; and emergency trailers commonly used to house people after natural disasters.
Officials stressed they are searching for large sites near the camp and oppose dispersing residents to many temporary locations, which would isolate people and make it harder for social service agencies to reach them.
One location under consideration is a 7.5-acre site on East 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue in the East Phillips neighborhood. The city-owned site has a large vacant parking lot and a 400,000 square foot warehouse. The site, known as the Roof Depot, appeals to city officials and Indian leaders because of its large size and proximity to the Little Earth housing project and surrounding community, where many of the camp dwellers have lived and have relatives.
The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, which represents the leaders of 20 Indian-run nonprofits, said it is securing emergency housing trailers that could be placed at the site. The warehouse could also be used for temporary habitation, the group said in a letter to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey last week.
The growing encampment, dubbed “the Wall of the Forgotten Natives” because it is located along a highway sound wall, consists mostly of American Indians and has quadrupled in size over the past month, transforming a narrow strip of land into one of the largest and most visible homeless settlements ever seen in Minnesota.
Many of the tent dwellers say they have struggled to find affordable housing and feel safer living in a large group, watching over one another, than sleeping alone on the streets or in emergency shelters. Early on, Frey and leaders of local Indian nonprofits resolved to work with the camp dwellers rather than forcibly dispersing them. The city’s approach has been deliberate and differs from that of many other large cities, where authorities have used sweeps, raids and other punitive measures to break up camps and keep people moving.
Even so, efforts to help people obtain stable housing have been complicated by the fact that many of the camp residents have troubled rental histories, criminal records and substance-use problems. Since mid-August, agencies have assessed about 100 residents, but only five individuals have actually been able to move out of the camp and into more permanent housing, according to Hennepin County.
“It’s been an incredible mobilization, but we are still stretched very thin,” said David Hewitt, director of the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness, at Wednesday’s hearing.
As weeks have turned into months, city and county health officials have become increasingly alarmed by the camp’s growing size and health risks. The crowded nature of the site — many tents are less than a foot apart — and the frequent use of needles for drug use has made the area ripe for infections and the spread of communicable diseases, say nonprofit officials providing outreach at the site.
A growing number of families and pregnant mothers have moved into the site in recent weeks, drawn by the promise of housing and medical care.
Shelly Jack, who was among a dozen camp residents who attended Wednesday’s City Council hearing, is among the pregnant women living at the camp. She expects to give birth by November.
“It’s important that we move fast because … it’s getting cold and people’s lives are depending on the actions we take,” said City Council Member Alondra Cano at the hearing. “This is an emergency, and there definitely needs to be a broad-based response.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, one of the most visible leaders of the encampment made it clear that tent dwellers were prepared to dig in if the city failed to fulfill its promises of shelter. James Cross, founder of Natives Against Heroin, a street outreach group that has been organizing donations and security at the camp, said his organization is already preparing to build teepees and wigwams if a solution is not found soon.
“If you ain’t going to do what you’re supposed to do … we’re going to start building,” Cross said to City Council members. “The first teepee will come up.”