A young woman living at the homeless encampment in south Minneapolis died Saturday from complications resulting from an asthma attack, raising fresh alarms over the health and safety of approximately 300 people living at the large and growing site.
Alissa Rose Skipintheday, 26, was found barely conscious and not breathing last week near the entrance to the camp at East Franklin Ave. and 16th Ave. S., relatives said. She was rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center, where she died on Saturday.
Family members and residents of the camp said Skipintheday suffered from chronic asthma and did not have her emergency inhaler at the time of the asthma attack. She was homeless and had been living at the encampment for several weeks, they said. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office said Tuesday that her death remains under investigation.
“This is a tragic event that is painful for that entire community,” said Dr. Antony Stately, chief executive of the Native American Community Clinic (NACC) on East Franklin Avenue. “It really highlights the critical nature of conditions at the camp and the urgent need for on-site medical care.”
The growing tent city has alarmed local health officials and American Indian leaders, who have been scrambling to find emergency shelter and medical care for the growing number of people arriving at the site, located on a narrow strip of land along Hiawatha and East Franklin Avenues near the Little Earth housing project.
Despite an intensive outreach effort by a coalition of city, county and American Indian agencies, some residents with chronic illnesses and serious infections are still going without basic medical care. Efforts to bring in a mobile health unit have been held up by regulatory restrictions and liability concerns, say local officials and outreach workers.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey had pledged to find housing for everyone by the end of September, though that deadline is now seen by many Indian agencies as unrealistic given the swelling numbers of people arriving at the site.
The encampment — which tent dwellers have called “the Wall of the Forgotten Natives” because it borders a highway sound wall and primarily consists of American Indians — has roughly quadrupled in size over the past month. Residents say they are seeking safety in numbers, as opposed to sleeping alone in various spots across the city, as well as access to food, clothing and social services. The camp now has 142 tents, according to a count Tuesday by the Minneapolis Police Department.
The crowded nature of the encampment — many of the tents are less than a foot apart — has health officials worried about the spread of infections and communicable diseases. They have recorded several cases of a drug-resistant bacterial infection known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to sepsis, pneumonia, bloodstream infections and death. Residents also worry that ambulances would be unable to reach the tent dwellers in an emergency because of the growing number of tents and the concrete barriers recently installed near the entrances.
“We need rotating shifts of nurses out here on a regular basis,” said Margarita Ortega, a volunteer with Natives Against Heroin, a street outreach group that has been a visible force at the encampment. “This death could and should have been prevented.”
Skipintheday died less than a day after Mayor Frey met with representatives of the American Indian community, including directors of several nonprofits and leaders of the Red Lake and Leech Lake tribes, to discuss a plan for moving people to safer housing. There was general agreement at the meeting that the current location is not suitable but that authorities should not try to disperse residents until plans for safer housing are in place.
Still, the meeting was combative at times, with several Indian leaders expressing frustration over the absence of a clear plan and the need to address urgent health concernst.
“How many more of our relatives are going to die before we get them assistance?” James Cross, founder of Natives Against Heroin, asked a state Health Department official at the meeting. “Blood is on your hands.”
Gasping for breath
Fabian Jones, a cousin of Skipintheday and a peer recovery coach for the Native American Community Clinic, said Skipintheday was raised primarily by her grandmother on the Mille Lacs Reservation after her mother died. She had struggled with mental health and substance-use problems, but her grief and depression intensified after the death of her grandmother about a year ago, he said. Jones said his cousin arrived at the encampment in July, seeking emotional support and community after spending months wandering the streets alone.
“When you’re out on the streets, you can’t share your true feelings with people,” said Jones, who volunteers at the site for Natives Against Heroin. “You hold it all in, and the grief and depression just get worse. I could see in my little cousin’s face that she was hurting.”
A number of volunteers at the encampment said they noticed that Skipintheday gasping for breath at a recent dinner and spiritual gathering. At least two volunteers were so concerned they gave her emergency inhalers and encouraged her to seek medical help, Jones said, but she was still without any medication at the time of her death.
Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and chair of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID), said Skipintheday’s death underscores the vulnerability of the camp’s population and the urgency of finding provisional housing.
“If [Skipintheday] had a home, medical care and some stability, she might be alive today,” Park said.
Since Saturday morning, grieving relatives and residents of the tent city have been stopping to pray at a memorial and “spirit fire” built to honor Skipintheday near the center of the encampment. A spirit fire is a traditional ritual in some American Indian communities that is believed to help a person’s spirit join their ancestors after death. The small fire has been burning nonstop since Friday night, sending small plumes of smoke wafting over the passing traffic on Hiawatha Avenue.
A funeral ceremony will be held on Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Community Center on the Mille Lacs Reservation.