On his first night in a new apartment after two years of homelessness, Mike Eagle Tail found himself bolting awake in his bed, expecting to hear the wail of police sirens or the sound of people crying out for help.
Instead, for the first time in months, Eagle Tail heard only his three sleeping children — Raymond, 9, Rolanda, 8 and Lakota, 7 — breathing softly from their bedrooms. Eagle Tail quietly eased his bulky frame through the apartment, checking on his children.
"It was surreal how calm it was," said Eagle Tail, 40. "You can't fully appreciate how precious shelter is until it's gone."
An unprecedented, six-week effort to find stable housing for hundreds of people living at a crowded homeless encampment near the Little Earth housing project in south Minneapolis is finally showing significant results. The Eagle Tails are among nearly three dozen people, including individuals and families, who have moved out of the camp and into apartments or homes after months or even years living on the streets. Another 75 people have been screened and matched with community housing programs, often the final step before moving into permanent housing.
While slower than some anticipated, the gains still mark a turning point in a highly coordinated campaign to bring social services to this sprawling tent city, which remains the temporary home of about 200 men, women and children.
Since August, city, county and American Indian officials have treated the camp as a public health emergency and have marshaled teams of social workers to talk to the residents and sign them up for housing. The leaders of Red Lake Nation, whose members represent about one-quarter of the camp population, have also launched an aggressive effort to recruit willing landlords and remove barriers such as rules that bar people with prior evictions or criminal records. At the same time, outreach workers with local nonprofits have been ferrying people to and from appointments with landlords, while also helping them apply for state housing assistance.
It generally takes up to two months for someone who is homeless to move into housing after being referred to a community provider, county officials said.
Because of the aggressive outreach efforts, some of the most vulnerable of the tent city's inhabitants, including people with disabilities and families with children, are moving into apartments within weeks after engaging with social workers.
"We've never had this concentration [of homeless], so any response was going to be greater in scale than anything we've seen previously," said David Hewitt, director of the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness. Now, after a six-week push, he said, "We are starting to see more and more people cross that finish line."
For many still living at the camp, progress has seemed painfully slow. In interviews, people living at the camp describe the frustration of waiting weeks for a spot to open in a community housing program only to learn that landlords had turned down their applications because of problems with their credit or rental histories.
And in some cases, camp inhabitants have turned down subsidized housing because they simply were not ready to leave relatives behind or make such a dramatic shift in lifestyle, outreach workers said.
Even with the recent housing successes, the population of the camp has hardly diminished, because new people move in each day to replace those who leave.
With cold weather approaching, the Minneapolis City Council recently passed an emergency measure intended to speed up the planned relocation of those at the camp to a nearby site owned by the Red Lake Nation.
The band plans to erect a series of connected trailers at the site, just a few blocks east of the camp, to shelter up to 150 people. Demolition began this week at the site, which tribal leaders expect to be ready by early December.
"Why are our elders still here? Why are children still here? Why are there still people here in wheelchairs?" asked a frustrated James Cross, founder of the street outreach group Natives Against Heroin, which has an army of volunteers that provide security and donations at the site. "You can't call this progress when you've got this many people stuck out here."
Yet for many at the camp, moving inside no longer seems like a far-off scenario.
Last week, Caryn Pacheco, 56, took her first tour of a vacant apartment since she moved into the encampment in late July.
She said she was surprised when a social worker who accompanied her on the visit politely asked her what she was looking for in an apartment. "I said, 'Well, indoor plumbing would be nice!' " Pacheco said, chuckling as she ate a bowl of soup outside her tent. "Four walls. Heat. A toilet. … The bar is low when you've been living out here."
While the apartment did not pan out, Pacheco said she has started to feel hopeful for the first time in months.
"I can visualize it now — you know, me decorating a place," she said. "I'd make it very Bohemian."
On Monday, Mike and Ellen Rose Eagle Tail and their three children became the first tenants of a south Minneapolis fourplex that was hastily converted into housing for American Indian men and women living at the camp.
Their life, however, remains much as it was before they found the apartment.
In August, the Eagle Tails became members of Natives Against Heroin (NAH) and highly visible volunteers at the encampment, working 70-hour weeks to protect others. Mike, whose nickname is "Big Mike," regularly patrolled the camp at night, sometimes putting his own life in danger to break up fights and rescue people who had overdosed on heroin. They have continued to do this work, day after day, even after moving into a place of their own. "It brings a smile to my face to be out here," Ellen said on a recent evening.
When an older woman at the camp was assaulted this week, causing fear to ripple through the tent community, the Eagle Tails immediately agreed to spend another night providing security. It meant another night of fitful sleep on the hard, sloping ground along Hiawatha Avenue, which shakes with each passing truck. On such nights, the Eagle Tails drop their children off at their grandmother's house nearby and then wake before dawn to prepare them for school.
"I felt so much guilt and so much rage [after the assault] that I had to come back," Mike said, as he helped unload a fresh delivery of donations to the NAH tent. "This camp and these people have become a part of us. It's all about the relatives."
When not at the camp, the Eagle Tails begin their mornings exactly as they always have — by honoring their traditions.
On a weekday morning, they burned sprigs of sage while Ellen carefully braided the long dark hair of her husband and children. The children, who take indigenous drumming classes, then gathered in a circle and began pounding their deerhide drums while singing songs in Ojibwe. When the drumming stopped, the children looked refreshed and ready for school.
Moments before they walked out the door, Mike took one final peek at their rooms and calmly encouraged Lakota to tidy up his bed. "We're going to respect this home," he said without scolding. "Because there are some people who don't have a home."
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres