One of the largest and most visible homeless settlements ever seen in Minnesota is finally getting smaller, as public agencies intensify their push to find people housing ahead of a deadline for clearing out the site.
Hennepin County officials and nonprofits said Saturday that more than 60 people, including individuals and families, have moved out of the large homeless camp along Hiawatha Avenue and into their own homes or apartments in the past three months. On Friday alone, nearly two dozen people moved into their own homes — the largest one-day exodus from the camp since large numbers of homeless began arriving in late summer.
A sprawling tent city that in September was the temporary home of approximately 300 people has shrunk by more than half and now has fewer than 120 homeless inhabitants, county officials estimate. Local agencies and nonprofits plan to close down the encampment and move the remaining residents to a new, temporary shelter — consisting of three large, heated tents with support services — by mid-December. The Minneapolis City Council approved $1.5 million for the new shelter, which is being constructed nearby on land owned by the Red Lake Nation.
The recent advances in finding people housing are largely the result of a massive and highly coordinated campaign to bring social services to the camp, located on a narrow strip of land near the Little Earth housing project. Since late August, city, county and American Indian agencies have organized teams of outreach workers to talk to residents, connect them with landlords and sign them up for state housing assistance.
“This shows that our partnerships are working, and we are achieving really significant results for an extremely vulnerable group of people,” said David Hewitt, director of the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness. “It’s still an ongoing challenge but happily, in many cases, people are moving into stable housing.”
From the beginning, Minneapolis city and Indian leaders made a strategic decision to embrace the encampment as part of a wider effort to combat homelessness, and to avoid punitive measures that would only drive people further into the shadows.
In other major cities, officials have responded to large homeless camps with sweeps, raids, arrests and ticketing. Forced dispersals of camps only make the problem worse, advocates argue, causing people to scatter and become more isolated from their families and support networks. Sweeps also tend to destroy the relationships that outreach workers build with camp residents, creating a further barrier to finding permanent housing, according to a 2016 study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
“We said from the beginning that everyone here is family and we’re not going to leave anyone behind,” said Maren Hardy, health services coordinator with the American Indian Community Development Corp., which operates a large warming tent across from the camp.
Cheri Lynn, 34, was ebullient Saturday as she described moving into an apartment of her own in south Minneapolis after spending 86 days living at the homeless camp. She credits outreach workers with several nonprofits, including Avivo and Simpson Housing Services, which helped ferry her to appointments with landlords and connect her with a state-funded housing program that helps pay for rent.
“I was so happy and so grateful that I was ready to walk the 2 miles to my new place with all my stuff on my back,” Lynn said.
For the first time in months, Lynn said she can now get a full night’s sleep. She no longer wakes to the sound of people shouting or police sirens at all hours of the night. “The first night here, it was so quiet that I was jumping out of my sleep even when I wasn’t hearing anything,” she said. “I love the peace, but you have to adapt to that, too.”
Still, conditions for people still living at the camp have grown increasingly bleak and dangerous, heightening the urgency of outreach efforts.
On Saturday, many of the tents were caved in from this week’s snowfall, and the ice-covered ground between tents has impeded efforts to reach those who need help. Two large fires have broken out at the camp in the past two weeks, destroying about two dozen tents. In both cases, there were reports of propane cylinders used to heat tents exploding, though no one has been seriously hurt.
“This whole camp is like a matchbox,” said Donald Harvey, 57, who lost his identification and all his belongings when his tent was destroyed in a blaze Friday.
Josue Palacios, an emergency medical technician and pastor at the Iglesia Cristiana Pentecostes Rayo de Luz in Minneapolis, has been volunteering at the camp every weekend since September. Early Saturday, he was handing out donations and coffee at the camp when he heard a woman screaming. Palacios rushed to find a woman passed out and inebriated in her tent. She woke up just as he was about to perform CPR.
Last month, Palacios had to rush a camp resident to the hospital after the resident had suffered multiple broken bones in his face from a fight.
“It’s hard to rescue people in these conditions,” Palacios said, pointing to the ice and snow between the crowded tents. “I pray every day that people out here survive and no one else dies.”