Tents return to the Wall of Forgotten Natives in protest of encampment evictions

Outreach worker Jase Roe joined more than a dozen others to reclaim the site of a former encampment in Minnesota for people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Homeless outreach workers reclaimed on Wednesday the site of a former encampment dubbed the Wall of Forgotten Natives after the city of Minneapolis evicted about 20 people from an encampment just blocks away.

“This is Native land. This is our land,” said outreach worker Jase Roe, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, as about half a dozen state troopers stood guard to prevent more people from moving into the site.

The strip of land along Franklin and Hiawatha Avenues once held more than 200 tents until December 2018 when some 175 mostly Native people moved into a temporary shelter and the area was fenced off to prevent people from returning.

The area has remained vacant since until outreach workers cut open the fence and moved people back in, in a symbolic rebuke to local government agencies which have cleared encampments from parks and empty lots without having an alternative place for people to go.

“We’re moving back in until they give us another place for people to go,” said Marian Wright, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe who managed the temporary shelter in 2019. “You can’t keep pushing people out and wanting people to hide. They don’t want to see this. This is real.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd has exposed the Twin Cities’ worsening homelessness crisis, with hundreds of people living in tent encampments across the metro.

Black and Native Minnesotans are much more likely to experience homelessness. While Black Minnesotans make up 5% of the state’s adult population but 37% of its homeless population. Native Americans make up 1% of the state’s adult population but 13% of its homeless population, according to Wilder Research.

Black and Native people have also been hit harder by COVID-19, experiencing higher rates of illness and unemployment from the pandemic. A staggering half of Black Minnesotans have lost work because of the pandemic.

When the moratorium on evictions is lifted in the state, a surge in evictions could send even more people to already-packed shelters or onto the streets.

State and local leaders have responded with tens of millions in emergency funding for rental assistance, increased shelter capacity and hotel rooms, though finding beds for hundreds of people living outside before winter is still an open question.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against clearing encampments during the pandemic, saying it risks spreading the virus and breaks important connections with health care workers and other service providers.

In reclaiming the site of the Wall of Forgotten Natives, outreach workers said the numerous encampment sweeps in recent weeks have made it difficult to help people get into shelter and stable housing.

Jerrilyn Martinez rests in her new tent as more people return to the site of a former homeless encampment dubbed the Wall of Forgotten Natives in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

“Service providers need to be able to provide services, and moving people around is not doing it,” said Jenny Bjoro, an outreach worker with the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “We need to be able to find our people.”

Early in the pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz barred encampments from being cleared but later relented under pressure from local leaders who said it blocked them from addressing encampments that posed serious health and safety concerns.

After a couple hours the state troopers were called off the scene. As they drove away, activists and outreach workers opened the fence to cheers, and people moved in with tents, mattresses, coolers and blankets.

Kateri, who declined to give her last name, set up a small yellow tent near the middle of the encampment. A member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, she’s been homeless for about a year after moving back to Minneapolis from northern Minnesota.

“This is all an eye-opener to me,” Kateri said. “I just hope it’s not like this forever.”

Mike Goze, CEO of the American Indian Community Development Corporation, said nonprofit leaders are working with state, city and county officials, and people now living on the site don’t face an immediate threat of eviction.

The land is owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which typically defers to local leaders when responding to homeless encampments.

In an email, Minneapolis spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said city staff would meet with county and state officials on Thursday “to discuss the City’s supporting role moving forward.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.