Minneapolis city officials and American Indian nonprofits are stepping up a campaign to encourage residents of a large homeless camp in south Minneapolis to seek shelter from the cold.
On Wednesday, Minneapolis Fire Department crews erected a large, heated Army tent across the street from the encampment on Franklin and Hiawatha avenues. The tent will serve as an impromptu dining hall and meeting space for the approximately 200 people still living at the camp, including some who have been sleeping in tents at the site since July.
The warming tent is part of a larger effort by local officials to persuade people to leave the encampment and move to a new emergency shelter nearby by mid-December. Outreach workers with local nonprofits will be on hand to provide information about the new shelter and to correct some misconceptions circulating in the camp about how the shelter will operate and who it will accept.
“This will get people out of their tents and will give us an opportunity to talk to them about the services that are available,” said Stephanie Stuart, outreach navigator for the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis, which has helped coordinate outreach services at the encampment since August.
With the onset of frigid weather, people living at the camp have been spending more time huddled in their tents or in warmer settings away from the camp, such as public libraries and light-rail cars, outreach workers say. Fewer of the dwellers are walking around the camp during the day or stopping by the large donations tent at its center. That has complicated efforts to reach camp inhabitants and to raise awareness about the new, temporary shelter being erected nearby on land owned by the Red Lake Nation.
Time is running out. City, county and American Indian agencies plan to open the new temporary shelter — consisting of three large, framed tents housing up to 120 people — by mid-December. They plan to close down the existing encampment after the new shelter opens and after people have been given time to relocate there or to other locations, officials said.
“Given the weather and other conditions at the site, it is not a safe place for people,” said a spokeswoman for the city.
Still, nonprofit outreach workers say they have become concerned by the spread of false and misleading information about the new site, including erroneous reports that the shelter will resemble a military barracks, with heavy security, curfew and strict rules. There have also been false reports that people who use drugs will not be allowed into the shelter, outreach workers said.
Some people active at the encampment have even referred to the temporary shelter as a “concentration camp” and have urged others not to move there, said Camille Gage, a coordinator with the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID), which represents leaders of 20 Indian nonprofits in the Twin Cities.
The misleading claims have encouraged some people living at the camp to dig in despite the cold weather, Gage said, and despite its unsafe conditions. Four drug-related fatalities have been linked to the homeless camp since September, and last week as many as 10 tents went up in flames in a blaze caused by an unattended propane heater.
“At the end of the day, even if our families are in tents, they deserve something better than this road next to a highway, which is open to the elements and has zero protection against the 40-below winds when they hit in January,” said Patina Park, chair of MUID and executive director of the Indian Women’s Resource Center.
Dubbed a “navigation center,” the new shelter is being designed with the explicit aim of creating as few barriers as possible for people who may resist living in controlled environments. People will be allowed to bring their pets, belongings and partners, and they can stay 24 hours a day while getting connected with services such as mental health counseling intended to help them get off the streets. Residents who are inebriated or under the influence of illegal drugs will be allowed to stay in the center. There will be no curfew.
At the same time, medical professionals will be on hand to talk with residents about reducing the harm associated with substance abuse and to provide medication-assisted treatment. The nonprofit Native American Community Clinic will also operate a clinic on-site that will provide Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid dependency.
“The [shelter] will save lives,” said Frank Downwind, project manager for the nonprofit American Indian Community Development Corp., which has helped provide housing and other social services for people at the encampment. “It’s a temporary solution to a long-term problem.”