Early on a frigid morning this week, Sharon Lee Lovejoy and her two school-age grandchildren cuddled under a pile of blankets and sleeping bags in the back seat of her 1999 Jeep Cherokee, parked across from the large homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis.
The Lovejoys have come to this same corner on 22nd Street every night since they became homeless in early September. And despite multiple visits from outreach workers, Lovejoy insists that living in the shadows of a homeless camp — near many of her friends and relatives — is safer than living in an emergency homeless shelter.
"We're not going to any shelter," said Lovejoy, 49, who works part-time as a dishwasher, as she prepared her grandchildren for school. "We're safe here and we have people who watch over us."
The Lovejoys reflect the challenges ahead for Minneapolis officials and nonprofit outreach agencies as they intensify efforts to persuade hundreds of homeless people to move from the sprawling homeless camp to a new emergency shelter by mid-December.
Despite the sudden onset of freezing temperatures, many people living in or near the homeless camp say they have no plans to move. Some said they prefer the independence of living on the streets, huddled in tents or cars, than in more organized shelters. Others fear that moving to a shelter will cut them off from the tight-knit relationships they have formed at the homeless camp, which is located near the Little Earth housing project and has a large number of American Indian residents.
"If there are too many rules, people won't go," warned Kendell Jackson, 29, who is living at the camp. "A lot of people out here have problems with authority and they'll risk frostbite or worse to preserve their freedom."
Local nonprofit agencies that serve the homeless have been working diligently to persuade people to relocate to the new shelter, which is on property nearby owned by Red Lake Nation. They point to deteriorating conditions at the camp, including a spate of fatal drug overdoses and a fire last week that destroyed multiple tents.
Since early this month, teams of outreach workers with Indian nonprofits have visited the camp, surveying inhabitants about their hopes for the new shelter and the kinds of services they need.
"For better or worse, the encampment has brought visibility to the issue of homelessness in a hard-to-ignore way," said Stephen Horsfield, executive director at Simpson Housing Services, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that is providing operational support to the new shelter. "At the same time, there has been a rallying together and a real sense of community at the camp. … There is a perception that might all go away" if residents move to a shelter.
The plan is to relocate about 120 people from the camp to the new site, which will consist of three 40-bed heated tents with sleeping cots. The site will have gathering spaces, meals, showers, personal storage space and access to mobile medical care and social services. The nonprofit Native American Community Clinic will also operate a clinic on-site that will provide Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid dependency.
Officials said they are determined to avoid what has happened in some other cities, where the forced dispersal of large homeless camps has caused people to scatter, making it even more difficult for social workers and medical professionals to reach them.
This is precisely what happened earlier this month in St. Paul, when police and state highway crews cleared out a smaller homeless camp at the base of Cathedral Hill. Lacking other options, about a dozen of the roughly 40 people living there came directly to the Hiawatha encampment, where they were given tents and other supplies by Natives Against Heroin, a street outreach group.
"This is paradise compared to where we came from," said Brian Lucio, 53, who moved to the Hiawatha camp with his fiancé after being kicked out of the Cathedral Hill site. "The people here are good. No one harasses us. And you can walk around and feel safe."
James Cross, founder of Natives Against Heroin, whose volunteers have been organizing security and donations at the camp since August, said he expects about half the people will refuse to leave when the new shelter opens. Many are heroin addicts who prefer to shoot up in the privacy of their tents, he said. "The black spirit is so strong in that younger generation of [drug] users, that they don't want to go anywhere," Cross said.
Still, for many here, the onset of harsh weather has become a major source of concern. The congested rows of back-to-back tents are situated on a narrow strip of land tucked between a busy freeway and a sound wall. The strip creates a tunnel for the wind that whips through the camp, leaving many of the tents in tatters.
Camp inhabitants spend much of their days and nights searching for creative ways to stay warm. Tents are insulated with whatever people can find — tarps, blankets, cardboard and even plastic highway billboards. Some residents have resorted to burning rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizing gel in makeshift stoves made from food cans.
"You can cover yourself up with 20 blankets and still be cold out here," said Todd Weldon, 48, who has lived at the camp since the early summer.
'Tired of the chaos'
Angie Morrow, 40, is among those who said they are ready to move to an emergency shelter.
She arrived at the Hiawatha encampment with her 13-year-old daughter two months ago, after fleeing what she described as an abusive relationship. Since then, she has built a cramped home in the back of her aging Oldsmobile minivan, which she parks each night under the streetlights next to the camp. At night, she seals off cracks in the frosted windows with bedsheets and pillows.
At first, Morrow said she found fellowship and "a sense of peace" living near the camp. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Morrow found that the camp was a place where she could walk each morning and talk to others who understood her struggle with mental illness. At night, when she feels anxiety, Morrow conjures memories of the tall oak tree near her grandparents' home in Cass Lake, Minn., which she used to climb as a child to escape chaos at home.
"There are people here who understand what it's like to go through a nervous breakdown," she said. "They've been like family to me."
In recent weeks, however, Morrow said she has grown fearful for her safety. Drug dealers rap on her windows at night, and fights have broken out among the collection of tents across from her vehicle. She now sleeps with a baseball bat, knives and a pair of brass knuckles tucked under the piles of clothes that serve as her makeshift bed. She's had to use the bat twice to chase off drug dealers.
Morrow sent her daughter to stay with relatives in Golden Valley and hopes they will be reunited once the emergency shelter opens.
"There comes a point when you get tired of the chaos and you just want a full night's sleep," Morrow said, as she stroked a gray kitten that lives in her van. "It's time to move on."
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres