For the first time in months, there are large patches of bare ground between the wind-swept tents at the homeless encampment in south Minneapolis.
The native wigwams and teepees that once stood here — serving as sanctuaries and ceremonial meeting places for hundreds of American Indians — are gone, taken down by street outreach workers who also are less active at the site day by day. The smoldering campfire at the center of the camp is history, and the smell of wood smoke has been replaced by the exhaust of trucks removing piles of discarded tents, blankets, bikes and clothing.
The rapid dismantling of this once-crowded encampment near the intersection of Hiawatha and Cedar avenues has surprised even those who are helping to orchestrate the residents’ relocation to a new site. City officials estimate that only 65 people remain at a camp that, just a few months ago, was the temporary home of several hundred. Amid an intensive outreach effort by a coalition of American Indian nonprofits and city officials, roughly 100 people have packed their belongings and moved to a gated compound across the street that will serve as their temporary shelter until more permanent housing is found.
On Wednesday afternoon, a small army of volunteers was busy arranging cots and other furnishings inside the last of three heated tents to open at the new site, as people continued to arrive with bags and blankets.
“I am astounded at how smoothly things are coming together,” said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that is operating the new shelter. “We are going to be real, real close to being able to accommodate everyone” at the camp.
As the last of the teepees were taken down Sunday, a small crowd of volunteers and longtime residents of the camp gathered to watch and reflect. To many here, the peaceful removal of the teepees marked a symbolic end to the tent community, which many here had called the “Wall of the Forgotten Natives.” The first teepee was erected by the street outreach group Natives Against Heroin (NAH) in early September — almost as a show of defiance — when there was still widespread fear and speculation that residents would be forcibly cleared out from the site.
“[The teepees] were a statement that we’re here, but they were also a place to go where people felt safe and where they felt comfortable living in their traditional ways,” said Keiji Narikawa, a volunteer with NAH who was helping take down the teepee. “A tent is just a tent, but when you have a teepee, you have a safe place and a quiet place to go and be spiritual.”
David Gonzalez, a longtime resident of the camp who moved out Wednesday, spoke as he packed his belongings. “The camp is going away,” he said, “But the conditions that created this camp still remain.”
Even as the site empties, officials are preparing for the possibility that a small number of people may choose to remain. City officials said there are about a dozen people at the camp who have indicated they do not want to relocate to the new shelter but have no other plans for housing. Outreach workers are still engaged with them, trying to identify their needs and help them move to a safer place, officials said.
Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, the city coordinator, said she hopes the camp will be empty by the end of this week, but she stressed that the city does not have a firm date in mind for its closing. “Once you put a hard deadline out there, people start to panic,” she said. “We’ve done really well trying to meet people where they are, so we can get them on a better path.”
For those who are still living at the camp, conditions have grown desolate. The encampment now resembles a muddy construction zone with some scattered tents, as public works crews clear away piles of debris left by departing residents. Approximately 70 tons of waste have been removed from the site in just the past 10 days, city officials said. Portable toilets are also being removed this week, and the last hot meal was served Wednesday at a large warming tent across the street on E. Franklin Avenue.
“The message is clear,” Rivera-Vandermyde said. “We’re closing soon.”