Jennifer Hernandez hunched her shoulders against the biting wind and contemplated how she would find water to wash herself and her children.
She would probably walk six blocks to the nearest laundromat, fill a plastic jug and haul it in a shopping cart back to her tent. Later, with her back turned to the morning traffic, Hernandez would pour the water over her long dark hair.
“If I go early, I won’t have to deal with the public and ...” she said, pausing to find the words, “that horrible virus that’s going around.”
A month ago, the 40-year-old mother of two and her partner were among the first to pitch a tent along the light-rail line near Hiawatha Avenue and E. 28th Street. They wanted to be alone, to insulate themselves from the pandemic.
But others have followed, turning a once-vacant stretch of grass and mud into a makeshift encampment with more than two dozen people. Most say they feel safer sleeping in the open air than being in shelters where physical distancing is impossible.
As the novel coronavirus tightens its grip, such clusters of tents and sleeping bags are appearing in public spaces — in parks, under bridges and along transit lines — throughout the Twin Cities metro area.
Their growing presence has alarmed homeless outreach workers, who say the absence of basic sanitation supplies at the sites could lead to the rapid spread of the deadly pathogen among the estimated 1,600 unsheltered Minnesotans who sleep outside each night. “This is a slow-moving train wreck,” warned John Tribbett, street outreach program manager at St. Stephen’s Human Services in Minneapolis. “People will start dying in tents if we continue on our current path.”
Since the outbreak began, county agencies have been focused on isolating older homeless adults with underlying medical issues who are at the greatest risk of dying from the virus. Already, Hennepin County has helped move about 260 people into three hotels, and St. Louis County in northern Minnesota is securing another 90 hotel rooms. These efforts have eased dangerous crowding in emergency shelters while preventing a broader outbreak among the homeless. So far, two Minnesotans who are homeless have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, state officials said.
But the measures have primarily targeted people entering the shelters, like the Salvation Army’s Harbor Lights Center in downtown Minneapolis, while leaving hundreds of others who sleep outside to fend for themselves, say homeless outreach workers with several Twin Cities-area nonprofits. Some cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have deployed sanitation centers with port-a-potties and hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the unsheltered homeless. But apart from some scattered hand-washing stations in downtown Minneapolis, those tools are largely unavailable here.
In Hennepin County alone, there are about 600 people sleeping outside or in places, such as transit stations, deemed not fit for human habitation, according to the county’s most recent point-in-time count in January. Many have become more resistant to offers of beds in emergency shelters as the virus has spread, officials said.
Michael Goze, chief executive with the nonprofit American Indian Community Development Corp. (AICDC), which operates a drop-in center and other services for the homeless, said it’s “long past time” to install mobile sanitation centers for people sleeping outside. “This virus has the potential to blow up in this population,” Goze said. “We’re seeing six people crammed in four-person tents without a place to wash.” He added, “Social distancing and tents don’t go hand in hand.”
Hernandez and her partner, Robert Jones, said they ended up homeless in February after falling behind in their rent. They spent a couple of weeks living with friends at the Little Earth housing complex in south Minneapolis before their hosts became frightened by the coronavirus and asked them to leave. They considered going to a shelter before deciding it would be safer to isolate in a tent.
Early on, Hernandez began calling the site “Camp Quarantine,” and the name has caught on among the growing number of tent dwellers at the site, which is sandwiched between the light-rail line and a wooded ravine littered with trash.
Inhabitants of Camp Quarantine are closely monitoring news of the coronavirus on their smartphones. Several said they are aware of recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urged cities to stop clearing encampments during the COVID-19 outbreak unless individual housing units are available. Gov. Tim Walz issued similar guidance in his stay-at-home executive order, saying “sweeps or disbandment” of homeless encampments increase the risk of spreading the disease.
“For once, they are leaving us alone,” said Hernandez, who is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
On a recent evening, several men who live at the camp appeared with rolls of discarded carpet that they dug out of a dumpster nearby. They began slicing up the fabric into smaller pieces and laying it inside their tents for insulation. A few covered their faces with bandannas, but most moved freely among tents, sharing food and supplies without any protection.
As the sun faded, Rodriguez gently brushed the hair of her daughter, JennieMae, 6, while her son, Goku, just 19 months, darted between muddy furrows with a soccer ball.
“There’s absolutely no way I’m going to a shelter,” declared Sky Bailey, who moved to the site soon after state health officials announced the first case of coronavirus. “It’s cold, but at least we’re away from everyone who’s sick. It’s a safe zone.”
But the absence of basic sanitation makes it difficult for people here to isolate themselves. Brandon Anderson said he ventures out each afternoon to find water and a restroom. With libraries and most other public facilities closed, he and others are crowding into restrooms at area stores and transit stations. “We call this ‘Camp Quarantine,’ but you can’t fully quarantine out here,” he said, before setting out on his bike for supplies.
Recently Hernandez has been more afraid of strangers passing through the camp than the coronavirus. She awoke at 2 a.m. one day to hear a man trying to open their tent; she screamed and the man fled. Now she’s built an intricate alarm system made of empty food cans strung together with clothesline and hidden with cedar boughs. It jingles any time someone approaches at night.
“We keep our eyes on everyone,” Hernandez said as she scanned the horizon. “These are our homes. We don’t want no drama, no drug use and no two-facing criminals out here.”
On a morning last week, as a snow fell outside her tent, Hernandez awoke to a headache and a cough. Out of caution, she got tested for the coronavirus by a visiting nurse.
She is still awaiting the results.