A once-sprawling homeless encampment in south Minneapolis that was recently home to several hundred people is now officially closed, bringing to an end months of pain, turmoil and relentless outreach efforts by a coalition of nonprofits.
The camp’s last few residents — three American Indian women who have been living in tents there since the summer — moved out of the site quietly and with little ceremony at about 4 p.m. on Friday, as police and city public works crews cleared away the last piles of debris from the site. Barriers were immediately erected at both entrances to the camp along Hiawatha Avenue near the Little Earth housing project, to keep people from moving in.
“It feels like a new chapter,” said Teresa Martin, 46, among the last to walk out of the camp Friday. “I feel sad and relieved at the same time. We lost a community but we no longer feel invisible. At least now we know that everyone here is getting help.”
The peaceful end to the encampment — one of the largest and most visible homeless settlements ever seen in Minnesota — stands in contrast to its short and turbulent history. Since large numbers of people began arriving here in August, there have been four deaths of residents linked to drug use, multiple fires caused by makeshift heating devices and reports of threats of violence and intimidation by volunteers patrolling the site. Conditions grew so hostile at the camp early this month that American Indian leaders called a community meeting to quell tensions and help unify efforts toward relocating inhabitants to a temporary, heated shelter nearby.
The closing of the encampment on Friday culminated an aggressive, monthslong campaign to bring social services to a hard-to-reach population of people, including many who are struggling with substance abuse and mental health problems. It also served to vindicate the unorthodox approach pursued by civic leaders. 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.
“We have handled this differently from other cities around the country, and the voice that we gave to our Native and homeless community in the transition is a large part of what made this successful,” said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. “Traditionally, municipalities have been content with measures that perpetuate and even criminalize homelessness.”
In other major cities, officials have responded to large homeless camps with sweeps, raids, arrests and ticketing. These approaches only make the problem worse, homeless advocates argue, by causing people to scatter and become more isolated from their families and support networks.
“Every single person doing outreach [at the camp] really focused on the humanity of the people living there,” said Patina Park, chair of Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors and executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “They approached even the most challenging individuals, who were in the depths of addiction and mental illness and crisis, and treated them with compassion and empathy rather than judgment and nuisance. The commitment to humanity never wavered.”
Over the past few months, nonprofits involved in outreach at the encampment have assisted more than 100 individuals move into apartments or houses of their own. Another 135 residents of the camp have recently transitioned to a temporary shelter — consisting of three, large heated tents with services — across the street near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station.
The new shelter, known as a “navigation center,” is designed to have as few barriers as possible: People can bring their pets, partners and adult family members, and can arrange their own sleeping areas inside the structures. Residents are not required to be sober, though drinking and the use of illegal drugs are not permitted, officials said. Social workers are on site to help people obtain housing, substance abuse treatment and other services. It is only meant to be a temporary shelter, officials said.
“Long-term and stable housing is the conclusion that we are ultimately looking for,” Frey said.
As dusk settled over the once-bustling site on Friday, Martin stopped to reflect as she gazed out over the barren strip of dirt that was once her home.
With a single bag of belongings at her side, Martin spoke of how lonely she felt when she arrived here in early summer, after being kicked out of her apartment by her boyfriend. At the time, she was one of just a half-dozen people who had pitched tents along a highway sound wall. Martin said she never expected that hundreds more would follow, and that Indian volunteers would eventually build traditional wigwams and teepees.
Martin said her experience living here for months has brought her closer to her Indian relatives, while also serving as a reminder that, “I can’t take anything for granted, including my time on this planet.” In the coming days, Martin said she plans to find her own apartment and get help for her substance use problems.
“This place changed everyone who lived here,” Martin said. “At first, it felt sad to be here, because we felt like we were the only ones. ... But then the people came and the services came and we no longer felt so alone. We realized we could survive if we stuck together.”