It was just past dusk on Christmas Eve, and a woman bundled in a parka leaned her head against the chain-link fence surrounding a large homeless shelter in south Minneapolis and began to sob uncontrollably.
Her cries were drowned out by the cacophony of wailing ambulance sirens, paramedics shouting orders and the distant clamor of a group of young homeless men, their faces wrapped in bandannas against the cold. The din gave way to silence as a woman who had just overdosed on heroin was rolled on a stretcher out of the metal gates of the shelter. It would take several shots of Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, to revive her.
This month’s opening of a new emergency homeless shelter near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station was hailed as a milestone in an ambitious effort to find housing for dozens of people living in weather-beaten tents on a strip of land near the Little Earth housing project. For the first time in months, people had a warm place to sleep, three meals a day, hot showers and locked storage units to keep their belongings safe.
Yet overdoses like the one on Christmas Eve are a reminder that much remains the same in this small community of homeless men and women.
Many came to the shelter seeking refuge from the chaos of living on the streets and the near-daily sight of people overdosing near their tents at the large homeless camp on Hiawatha Avenue.
Instead, the life they tried to escape has followed them. Drug use is not allowed inside the shelter, but heroin and meth dealers roam the nearby parking lots, alleys and bridges surrounding the gated complex, complicating efforts by outreach workers to help people get into treatment and secure stable housing.
The men and women here struggling with addiction do not have to travel far to find drugs. Since last week, about two dozen tents have sprung up on a hillside just across the street from the new shelter. That settlement, which some have dubbed “the Hill,” has become a convenient site for people from the shelter to shoot up or smoke drugs, while still maintaining a warm place to sleep.
With its used drug needles and tattered tents, it resembles a smaller version of the sprawling homeless camp at the intersection of Hiawatha and Cedar avenues shut down less than a week ago. “It’s wonderful that people have a safe place to go, but until they get into stable housing, they cannot begin the healing process,” said Jen Marrs, 45, who lives at the shelter with her two dogs. “Right now, those running [the shelter] are walking a very fine line between helping people and enabling harmful behavior.”
Residents at the shelter say overdoses are not as frequent as they were at the homeless camp, in large part because there are harm-reduction specialists on-site encouraging people to pace their drug intake. Still, many of the approximately 135 people living at the shelter are deep in addiction, and have been resistant to efforts to connect them with housing, treatment and other services. City officials have stressed that the shelter is temporary and the goal is permanent housing.
“I’ve got a lot of love for all the people out here, and it hurts me to say this, but it’s almost like nothing has changed,” said Pierre Bowdry, 23, who now lives in a tent across from the shelter. “It’s just that now people have a warm place to go after they shoot up.”
For many, moving to a new shelter at the peak of the holiday season has induced new stresses and has heightened the dangers of relapse. At 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Aaron Thomas Schaer, 45, sat in his tent across from the shelter and laid out three syringes of heroin, alcohol swabs, sterile water, two small metal tins for cooking the drug, and some Narcan.
The fact that he was alone on Christmas, hundreds of miles from his girlfriend and family in Illinois, weighed heavily on him. Schaer wrapped his upper arm with a tourniquet and injected himself with three times his normal dose of heroin. He felt the most intense high he has had in months, according to his recounting of the night. “It felt like my heart was racing 400 miles an hour and the tent was moving away from me,” Schaer said. “I’m not suicidal, but I wouldn’t have cared if I died.”
Hours later, Schaer was walking through the gates of the emergency shelter like nothing had happened. Like other recovering addicts here, he has fallen back into old habits and routines, despite efforts by outreach workers to get him into treatment. In the inside pocket of his leather jacket was a small plastic case containing several syringes full of heroin, which he was preparing to use later on Christmas Day. “I need to get my head on straight if I’m going to live much longer, but it can be hard when there’s so many people using [drugs] around you,” Schaer said.
Yet the outpouring of support for this community, which began at the homeless camp five months ago, has continued. On Christmas Day, a steady stream of people dropped off supplies at the front gates of the shelter, while Catholic Charities brought a hot meal for everyone inside. One woman, Maribel Cruz, 34, dropped off boxes of chicken, rice and beans at the gates, while her 4-year-old daughter, Bella, tugged at her arms. “I have a very big reason for doing this,” Cruz said, hugging her daughter. “I want to show my daughter the importance of compassion, of helping the less fortunate among us.”
Early Tuesday afternoon, a wave of frenzied activity swept through the hillside camp across from the shelter, when ministers with the God’s Kingdom Ministry arrived at the site with blankets. A small crowd gathered as leaders of the evangelical church from Brooklyn Center performed what they called a “deliverance,” the casting out of demons from a man living at the camp. “In the name of Jesus! Come out! Out!” screamed Victoria Toure, the assistant pastor, as she pressed her hands against the man’s head. As she spoke, the man fell with his eyes closed into the outstretched arms of several church members, then lay silently on the ground.
The crowd dispersed quietly, and the man who had fallen rose back to his feet. From outside his hilltop tent, he gazed confusedly at the streets below and the parade of homeless people walking back toward the shelter.