The “Wall of Forgotten Natives” returns with call for greater response to homelessness

By: - September 4, 2020 11:52 am

Sharon Day, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, speaking at a press conference on September 3, 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Native leaders in Minneapolis renewed their call for the city, county and state to invest more in addressing the increasingly visible housing crisis in the Twin Cities, a day after social workers reclaimed the site of a former sprawling homeless encampment called the “Wall of Forgotten Natives.”

“We need to do better for our Native and non-Native relatives who are sleeping outside and sleeping in places unfit for human habitation,” said Robert Lilligren, CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute and member of the White Earth Nation, at a news conference Thursday. “Winter is only a few months away.”

Native Americans make up 1% of the state’s adult population but 13% of its homeless population, according to Wilder Research. A survey of a large encampment in Minneapolis earlier this summer found nearly half of the 282 people living there were Native.

The call to action had echoes of the fall of 2018, when over 200 tents pitched cheek-by-jowl lined the strip of land along Franklin and Hiawatha Avenues.

It was the largest homeless encampment in Minnesota history at the time and catalyzed an unprecedented collaboration between nonprofits and tribal and local governments to move some 175 mostly Native people into a temporary emergency shelter, costing more than $3 million to build and run for nearly six months.

Afterward, the area was fenced off and the city of Minneapolis adopted a policy of constantly sweeping encampments to prevent any from swelling to a similar size as the Wall of Forgotten Natives arguing large encampments pose serious health and safety concerns.

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.

This summer saw even larger encampments pop up in the city, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic and unrest following the police killing of George Floyd displaced hundreds of people and inspired a grassroots effort to prevent law enforcement from evicting people living in tents.

But in recent weeks, the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Parks system have cleared over a dozen encampments across the city, citing health and safety concerns, to the dismay of people living outside and the outreach workers helping them.

“Being pushed from place to place, being told we can live here for a certain amount of time and then people come out and push us to another encampment and then come to take it away (again) with bulldozers and police. How does a human react to something like that?” said Teresa Dircks, who moved to the reclaimed encampment, which now has about 40 tents.

Dircks lived at the Wall of Forgotten Natives in 2018 and the emergency shelter, called a “navigation shelter.” Since then, she’s bounced in and out of housing as she’s struggled with addiction while grieving her partner, who died of an overdose at the navigation center.

Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, choked up while speaking at the news conference, a rare expression of grief from the 84-year-old activist.

“It’s pitiful what we have to do and the effect it has on our community,” Bellecourt said. “We can’t just sit around and think about where we’re going to put up a camp next.”

Sharon Day, the head of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force and member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, ticked off a list of damaging federal Indian policies that have contributed to the staggering disparities Native people face in wealth and health compared to their white counterparts.

“American Indians have been preyed upon, hunted. Our children have been stolen and placed in boarding schools, foster care and adopted out to people who abused us,” Day said. “We have been rounded up and placed on reservations the same way the Minnesota state troopers rounded up our relatives yesterday and fenced them in. We were moved to the cities during the relocation era and we remain here today … We are still here, and we are not going anywhere.”

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.

Day called on the city of Minneapolis to give Native nonprofits access to the Roof Depot, a vacant building that the city is developing into a new public works facility. Native leaders asked for access to that site in 2018, too, but were unsuccessful. The city cited safety concerns about housing people in an industrial area.

“Give us the Roof Depot. Show us we matter,” Day said. “Show us we matter more than a storage area for your trucks. We will make a good place for our relatives, so they can live the lives they wish to.”

The city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the state have directed tens of millions of dollars toward housing assistance and shelter in the Twin Cities in recent months, largely with coronavirus aid from the federal government. All three agencies have chipped in millions for the American Indian Community Development Institute to open a 50-bed shelter near Franklin and Hiawatha Avenues.

Hennepin County and nonprofits are currently leasing nearly 700 hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, and a spokesman for the county said more than 1,200 people have transitioned from shelter or unsheltered homelessness to permanent housing in the county this year.

A group of social service workers and housing advocates are also working to create an indoor tiny house village in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis, to temporarily house 70-100 people this winter.

The scope of the problem, however, is still vast. A 2018 study by Wilder Research estimates a quarter of the 20,000 homeless Minnesotans are living outside of formal shelter. There hasn’t been a survey of homeless residents in Minnesota since the start of the pandemic, but outreach groups report a significant increase in demand for shelter and other services.

“To see our people shunned and pushed around and forgotten about,” said Dircks, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. “I just ask for anybody to help and come sit down and get to know some of these people. They want help.”

People in Hennepin County seeking shelter can call 612-248-2350. 

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, 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.