With hugs, laughter and a few tears, nearly a dozen people who have been living at a south Minneapolis homeless encampment for weeks and even months finally moved out of the cold on Tuesday and into a temporary shelter sponsored by the Red Lake Nation and city officials.
Their peaceful transition from a compound of tattered, snow-covered tents — crowded together on a narrow strip of mud and pavement along a busy highway — marked a pivotal moment in a massive, monthslong campaign to bring social services to a hard-to-reach population of people, including many who are struggling with substance abuse and mental health problems.
In recent weeks, conditions at the camp, located near the intersection of Hiawatha and Cedar avenues, have deteriorated, and the mood had become so dark that some humanitarian aid workers said they were afraid to set foot there. As tensions escalated, officials feared that hostilities might prevent a safe transition to warm shelter.
Those concerns seemed to dissipate Tuesday and a festive mood prevailed while camp residents, local nonprofits and Minneapolis police came together to help people pack up for the move. “This is a beautiful day,” said James Cross, founder of Natives Against Heroin (NAH), a street outreach group that has been active at the site, as he helped load belongings into carts and moving vans. “It’s an honor to see the system come together for our people, finally.”
In stark contrast to the sudden clear-out last month of a homeless camp in St. Paul, civic leaders in Minneapolis have embraced a more gradual approach, preferring to engage with camp residents rather than impose deadlines and conditions. The approach enabled a diverse coalition of nonprofits to visit the camp and help people obtain housing and other services. All told, more than 80 people, including individuals and families, have moved out of the camp and into their own homes and apartments in the past four months.
Yet approximately 100 people remain at the encampment, and many of them are long-term homeless who have been resistant to efforts to find them housing and chemical dependency treatment, say outreach workers. Some have been living at the camp since the summer, and say they prefer the independence of living on the streets to organized shelters. As temperatures plunged, those left at the site began spending more time huddled in their tents, making them harder to reach by aid workers.
Their continued presence at the site had become a significant public safety concern. Several fires have broken out because of makeshift heating devices, destroying two dozen tents. On Tuesday morning, volunteers with NAH were still picking up the charred remains of a wooden wigwam that burned down Sunday.
Beyond the fires and the cold, there were growing concerns about violence. Over the past week, outreach workers and camp residents complained of being harassed and threatened by volunteers patrolling the camp. One man alleged that an NAH volunteer accused him of being a police informant and then threatened to torch his tent with him inside. Heroin and methamphetamine use is still widespread, with overdoses occurring almost daily.
At a crowded public meeting Sunday, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey made an impassioned plea for a concerted effort to move people to a new temporary shelter just several blocks east of the camp, on land owned by Red Lake Nation. “We collectively have the opportunity to set a national precedent for handling homelessness in a beautiful and compassionate way,” Frey told the crowd, which included residents of the camp and American Indian leaders.
On Tuesday, the efforts finally showed results. Around noon, a small group of camp inhabitants began loading their belongings into carts and moving vans. They were helped in the effort by NAH volunteers and a team of outreach workers with two nonprofits, Simpson Housing Services and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. City officials said they expect to move people in stages, with the hope of relocating all of the people still living at the camp by the end of next week.
James Loerzel, 59, who moved into the camp three months ago after being evicted from his apartment, was the first to pack his belongings.
His eyes showing a mixture of joy and sadness, Loerzel said how much he desired a hot shower and a night without sirens and people shouting. “You can’t hear yourself think out here,” he said. Loerzel’s makeshift bed consists of a dozen blankets piled on the ground in a mound. The corner of his tent still showed burn holes from a large blaze, just before Thanksgiving, that destroyed 10 tents nearby. He said he looks forward to finding his own apartment, but added: “For now, I’m just thrilled to get out of here.”
Many longtime residents of the camp said they came here seeking safety in numbers, as opposed to sleeping alone in various spots around the city. Yet they have also felt isolated and afraid to leave their tents for long, fearing that their belongings would be stolen.
Cali, 25, who asked that her last name not be used, said she has been unable to look for work or get to doctors’ appointments since she moved into the camp 2½ months ago. On Tuesday, she began preparing her move to the temporary shelter, which will have secure personal storage space. “I could hardly sleep last night, I was so excited,” she said.
“You can survive out here, but you can’t live,” she added.
It remains unclear how many people will actually make the move. In interviews, some here say they prefer the independence of living in tents to shelters. Most here, however, will go, predicted Kendell Jackson, 29, a camp resident, who spoke by a campfire near his tent. “It’s too chaotic and too dangerous. It’s time to come in from the cold.”
As the tent dwellers packed, construction crews were putting the final touches on the spacious, heated tents that will serve as the transitional shelter, called a “navigation center,” which will accommodate up to 120 people.
The new shelter will be open 24 hours a day, and is designed to have as few barriers as possible for new residents. People are allowed to bring their pets, belongings and partners, and outreach workers will be on site to help connect them to housing and other social services. Drug use will not be permitted in the tents; but those who arrive inebriated or under the influence of illegal drugs will be allowed to stay. No curfew will be enforced.
The center will remain open until May 2019, city officials said. After that, the Red Lake Nation is breaking ground on a new affordable housing project at the site.