One of the largest and most visible homeless settlements in Minnesota history is rapidly becoming a shadow of its former self, with fewer than 70 people still living in a camp that was once home to several hundred.
In just the past three days, nearly three dozen people have packed their belongings and moved to a gated compound of large heated tents that will serve as a temporary shelter until more stable housing can be found. Another 80 had already found apartments or other housing in recent months with the assistance of tribal leaders and Twin Cities nonprofits.
The quiet emptying of this once-crowded camp — which sprang up in August along a narrow strip of land near the Little Earth housing project — has occurred peacefully and with little ceremony, and culminates months of work by a rare coalition of American Indian nonprofits, tribal leaders and city officials.
The peaceful transition to the new shelter also stands in stark contrast to the dramatic raids and sweeps of unsanctioned homeless camps in other large cities.
While some at the camp are still reluctant to leave, city officials are holding out hope that the site will be emptied by the end of next week, marking the end of a long and sometimes tumultuous effort to move people to a safer place.
Since late August, city, county and Indian agencies have organized teams of outreach workers to talk to residents, connect them with landlords and sign them up for state housing assistance. All told, more than 80 people who once lived at the camp have found stable housing, county and tribal officials said Thursday.
At a press event Thursday, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the success so far is a testament to the collaborative approach the city and tribal leaders have adopted.
“From the beginning, we wanted a shift,” said Frey, who spoke from inside one of the new, heated tents across from the encampment. “People who are experiencing homelessness are not invisible. We wanted to make sure they are treated with compassion and a recognition of the dignity of every single human being.”
The transition to the new shelter comes at a critical time.
In recent weeks, conditions at the homeless camp had grown increasingly tense, as both residents and humanitarian aid workers complained of threats, harassment and intimidation. Some aid workers said the mood had become so hostile they were afraid to bring donations to the site. Two large fires broke out, destroying about two dozen tents. And despite an aggressive outreach effort, drug use is still widespread, with near-daily overdoses.
On multiple occasions, Frey and tribal leaders have declared the camp unsafe for habitation, while avoiding strong-arm measures that would force camp residents to disperse — and become more difficult to reach by social workers.
“This has been an awakening,” said Sam Strong, secretary of the Red Lake Nation, whose members once made up about one-quarter of the camp’s population. “People are finally starting to recognize the plight of native people.”
On Thursday, the mood was celebratory as a dozen more camp residents packed their belongings and moved to the new shelter near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station.
Nichole Dauphinais, 44, her daughter, Clarista Johnson, 20, and Dauphinais’ boyfriend, Kendell Jackson, 32, collectively screamed an exuberant, “Ahooooo!” as they arrived at the gates of the new shelter.
For the first time in months, the mother and daughter enjoyed a hot meal sitting down at a table. They immediately began arranging their living space. The new shelter has moving partitions between the cots, so relatives can stay together as units with some privacy.
Out of habit, the trio carefully laid out their collection of portable heaters and propane tanks, and then started laughing upon realizing that the devices were unnecessary in the heated shelter. “It’s like we’re living how we were, except we’re not freezing,” said Dauphinais, as she carried her bags into the shelter.
The move could not have come at a better time for Johnson, who had lived at the homeless camp almost since its beginning in August. In November, her tent was destroyed in a large blaze caused by an unattended propane stove. Like others here, she resorted to moving between friends’ tents, which proved dangerous. On her last morning at the camp, Dauphinais said she awoke to discover a stranger attempting to fondle her while she slept. She screamed and the man fled.
“It was getting scary,” Dauphinais said. “I feel like I’ve moved hundreds of miles away to a new home, but it’s only like a block away.”
The transitional shelter consists of three large, heated tents — known as a “navigation center” — that collectively will house up to 120 people.
The center is designed to have as few barriers as possible: People can come with 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.
In addition, medical professionals will be on hand to advise residents about reducing the harm associated with substance abuse and to provide medication-assisted treatment.
The nonprofit Native American Community Clinic will have staff on site providing Suboxone, a medication for treating opioid addiction that can ease withdrawal symptoms and suppress cravings.
The center will remain open until May 2019, city officials said. After that, the Red Lake Nation is breaking ground on a new affordable housing project at the site.