Hunched over a small metal bowl of burning candle wax, 47-year-old John Dale took stock of the items he’s crammed into his small tent at the homeless encampment in south Minneapolis.
Most of it, even the chips of scented wax, has come from dumpsters. That’s where he’s been searching for anything — tarps, blankets, cardboard — that might better fortify his home against the oncoming Minnesota winter.
Addressing his pit bull Lady, tucked under a mound of cloth, he asked, “You staying warm?”
It’s a question that echoes again and again outside the rows of tents. Many of the people walking through are visitors — students, seminarians, suburban families — loaded with armfuls of blankets to hand to residents bracing for their first winter in the tent city, near the Little Earth housing project at the intersection of Franklin and Hiawatha avenues.
The Minneapolis City Council last month approved $1.5 million to relocate the homeless encampment, which has been a temporary home for about 200 men, women and children since tents started appearing there this summer.
A temporary shelter, planned for a Red Lake Nation-owned site at 2105-2109 Cedar Av. S., near the encampment, is scheduled to open in early December.
The first significant snowfall last week, Dale said, changed the mood at the camp.
“I never planned to do a winter outside,” he said. “People are just really, really anxious to get out of here.”
Gary Piram, a mechanic who visits the camp once a week to pass out supplies, said he’s noticed the area quiets down when a cold wind whips through.
“Everyone is just barricading themselves in against the cold,” Piram said. “Once they get the tent warm inside, they don’t come out.”
The last few weekends have brought new groups of people bringing supplies, mostly winter clothing and blankets.
“That’s always a blessing,” said Tony Grahn, a 39-year-old who lives at the encampment, adding that most living there are seeking more firewood, firepits and propane heaters.
At night, the community tent fills with up to 35 people seeking the promise of shared body heat and whatever warmth a small corner stove can provide.
“We are packing ourselves like sardines inside,” Grahn said. “There’s a phenomenal sense of community here and this idea that we’ll get through it together.”
Others have been relying on portable propane heaters, though a small fuel tank may last only a couple of days.
‘Stay busy, stay moving’
Since running out of propane, Tracey Nagel, 50, has been heating rocks over a small fire pit set up outside her tent. At night she brings the rocks inside, though they are rarely enough to keep her hands warm. Even with gloves on, her fingertips are sore and feel as if they’re bleeding.
“I try to stay busy and to stay moving,” she said as she swept soot-stained snow away from the entrance to her tent. She’s been collecting insulation and picking out the thickest blankets from the donated piles.
Below-freezing temperatures have brought another problem: Nagel’s air mattress doesn’t stay inflated, so she’s been trying to find plywood and foam pads to jury-rig a bed that cushions the ground.
“I know I need to prepare now for when it gets worse,” she said. Her afternoons are spent collecting rocks to heat and chopping up larger chunks of donated firewood. “I’ll just have to figure it out.”
As Nagel tended to her fire, a woman stumbled by, slurring her words as she asked for a ride to the liquor store. For many in the camp, warmth comes from drink.
“It’s sad, but it keeps them from feeling the cold,” Nagel said.
Despite the risk of fires in or near tents — one caught on fire just this week — Grahn said that “you do what you can to get heat.”
Grahn is hoping to get into a drug-treatment center in the coming weeks. He wants sobriety, and a facility would offer a roof and a warm bed.
Still, he said, packing up now would mean not being there for the community as it faces the brunt of winter without help — a reality he said will worry him on nights when temperatures plunge.
“It’s already been rough, we weren’t prepared,” he said. “We can’t just check our phones for the weather. It’s scary because we don’t always know what’s coming.”