Connie Galt has lived in Phillips more than 50 years and refuses to move despite her son's pleas.
Twice homeless camps have appeared across the south Minneapolis alley from where Galt lives. Strangers linger on her front porch in the daytime and have sex on the sidewalk late at night. A cryptic message scrawled on the neighbor's garage door read, "I will kill you in your dreams." It frightened her.
"I'm 81 and I am reluctant to get into any sort of scrape with anybody. I'm not one of the people that go out and scream," said Galt. "I just want it to stop. I think it must be miserable for them. I would not want to be homeless. But I can't support them. I'm retired. I live on Social Security."
Encampments have become endemic to the working-class Phillips community, occasionally spilling into neighboring yards and the storefronts of small businesses. When friction between housed and unhoused boils over, the city evicts, the bulk of the camp regroups nearby, and the long-term solutions to everybody's problems remain out of reach.
Phillips neighbors feel frustrated and helpless. Some are scared to talk about their experiences for fear of drawing the ire of encampment advocates from outside the community.
St. Paul's Lutheran Church on 15th Avenue decided as a congregation to offer public access to its water spigot this summer, unable to bear the thought of people living on the street without water. But that's created an uptick in people using drugs and having sex behind the building — a dilemma for their youth summer camp, said Pastor Hierald Osorto.
"I serve a predominantly Latino congregation, and they love the Phillips neighborhood. They constantly remind me that we don't want to be this problem that the world continually perceives to be fixed," he said. "We want to be able to support in the best way, but the level of fear and insecurity that we're now experiencing makes it hard to make sense of how to do that."
One day after city crews swept a crowded tent city from 28th Street and 14th Avenue, another one emerged just 400 feet east, at 29th Street and Bloomington Avenue beside the Midtown Greenway.
It's a maze of about 40 tents staked in rows, comprising many of the same people displaced from the last encampment after neighbors blamed them for a three-house inferno on July 20. The subsequent investigation found that the fire started inside the vacant house at 2817 14th Av. S., but because its total collapse prevented a detailed examination, the cause remains undetermined.
A whack-a-mole response
"We've been playing whack-a-mole," said Mike Goze of the American Indian Community Development Corporation, which operates the Homeward Bound emergency shelter and a detox center. "We've been doing it since 2019, and it hasn't worked. In fact, it's created more homeless."
Last legislative session, AICDC requested $6.5 million to acquire a 30-bed residential treatment facility with outdoor space for ceremonies and a sweat lodge. Despite a $9.2 billion budget surplus, legislators could not agree to a bonding bill.
Goze believes the principle that getting people housed first allows them to better tackle other issues like mental health and employability. But he also views addiction as the primary cause of chronic homelessness in his community, with expensive habits that cost more than $100 a day to maintain driving burglaries and the sexual exploitation of Indigenous women.
How a low-income community is supposed to take on the opioid epidemic is an open-ended question.
Janessa Banks has lived in a tent at 29th and Bloomington going on three weeks. She keeps to herself, carrying everything she owns in two bags slung over each arm when she goes on walks through the alleys. At age 31, she has been homeless since 18, she said, addiction thwarting her ability to maintain stable housing and custody of her two sons.
She needs "somebody that can explain things to me and show me where to go and what to do," Banks said.
Street outreach workers cycle through, offering assessments as the first step to matching individuals with suitable housing.
Jade Gale said she took the initiative of reaching out to a caseworker last month and was soon placed in an apartment. She packed her belongings the morning of Aug. 4, ecstatic for her intake appointment that afternoon.
"I feel like I'm at the end of my addiction," said Gale, who aims to reunite with her three sons. "I'm ready. Nothing can get in between having my apartment and getting my kids back."
For Banks, the encampment provides a helpful respite and safety in numbers. Gale credits a skinny, curly-haired man everyone calls "King" — Deanthony Barnes — with keeping the peace and coordinating donations.
King, who has moved from camp to camp following multiple evictions, said he prefers to "live free," untethered to a 9-5 job, owing no taxes.
As de facto leader, King picks up needles and deals with neighbors who show up looking for missing items. Sometimes he manages to track down all or parts of bikes and other items for them.
"Violence comes to us too, and we have to just deal with it," King said. "We're not the ones stealing cars and stuff like that. We have to deal with that shit, pulling up to the camp, making us look bad, bringing the heat."
No easy fix
Mahamed Cali, the founder of Somali American Radio and the manager of Madina Mall on 13th Avenue, periodically goes to the encampment on behalf of shoppers who have had wallets stolen out of their cars. He tries to relate to camp residents, telling them how his 35 small-business owners are refugees of war.
"We see the conflict with them. Some people are not happy with what some other people are doing," Cali said. "When we show them [the security footage], they say, 'We can get that for you, please give us time.'"
The business owners don't want to fight over shoplifting, but customers are dwindling, Cali said.
When Vinny Dionne, co-director of the American Indian Movement Patrol, drives through Phillips, he constantly runs into old friends struggling with addiction, which reminds him of all the loved ones he's lost to overdoses.
Dionne grew up in Little Earth and worked there as an adult, juggling several jobs while trying to manage pain from a knee injury. Prescription painkillers led to an opioid dependence that led to meth. He alienated himself from positive relationships and gravitated toward other addicts, losing his job, selling drugs to buy drugs and eventually serving six years in prison.
Treatment cleared his mind. He dreamt of giving back to the community, but when he got out in 2019, the explosion of addiction in the community came as a heartbreaking shock.
For the past two years, he's worked as a street outreach worker with AICDC, offering blankets, addiction treatment assessments and housing referrals. A lot of the people he visits in the streets are people he's known for a long time.
"The main thing I see honestly is a lot of people stuck in active addiction, and they're not ready yet," Dionne said. "What I needed for me personally was to get off drugs, and after that I was able to start changing my life."
Encampment sweeps complicate his job as an outreach worker because they scatter his clients, making them harder to serve. But as a father of three who also lives in Phillips, he resents the drug dealers who follow camps, and the needles everywhere.
"It's not an easy fix because I get it from both sides," Dionne said. "There are good people there, and those are the ones I'm always trying to do my best to help, but there's also a criminal element that's in encampments, selling drugs and preying off our people."
On June 30, City Council Members Jason Chavez and Aisha Chughtai issued a notice of intent to develop an encampment response policy. Details have yet to come.