62 people leave homeless camp for hotel as more arrive

Tonya Jack moves tipi polls at the second Wall of Forgotten Natives. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Only hours after outreach workers had reclaimed the site of a former homeless encampment in Minneapolis earlier this month, some 70 tents had already filled the narrow strip of grass along Franklin and Hiawatha Avenues.

The “Wall of Forgotten Natives” had been fenced off by the Minnesota Department of Transportation since December 2018, when the city moved 175 mostly Native people from the encampment into a nearby temporary shelter. In recent weeks, social workers reclaimed the site to protest the authorities breaking up encampments across the city.

“We can get people into services if they give us a chance,” said Jenny Bjorgo, an outreach worker with the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “That was my argument with the state troopers that day when they were trying to shut us down — give us a chance to offer people services to get them in somewhere.”

That proved true this week, when the social service non-profit Avivo helped 62 people leave the encampment for a hotel in the northwest suburbs.

Avivo began leasing the hotel for homeless people in late May, when they evacuated an encampment of 70 people near the height of the civil unrest at the Third Precinct following the police killing of George Floyd. Since then, Avivo moved everyone into their own apartments and was ready to start again with a new cohort.

“Our goal is to find all of those individuals their own housing, because a hotel is definitely not a place to live,” said Emily Bastian, Avivo’s vice president of chemical and mental health.

The move is a substantial step toward addressing the increasingly visible homelessness crisis, which has led to encampments with dozens — even hundreds — of tents across the city even as the city, county and state have directed unprecedented amounts of funding toward housing and shelter.

More people have moved to the encampment on Franklin and Hiawatha even as the 62 moved out, with about 50 people estimated to be staying in the encampment. Outreach workers were able to consolidate the tents, moving people toward one side and fencing off about half to keep it vacant.

The state, which owns the property, doesn’t have a date planned for closing the encampment, and is providing dumpsters and sanitation crews while the city of Minneapolis is providing portable toilets and handwashing stations.

Although the encampment looks similar to how it did in 2018, a few things are different: There’s a fence around it, which allows volunteer security guards to monitor who comes in and out. Residents say it feels safer than it did in 2018, when it could be a volatile place to live. Different outreach groups also have more practice working together and are more coordinated this time around in getting people into housing, shelter, drug treatment or hotel rooms.

The Red Lake Nation’s 110-unit affordable housing project is being completed on the other side of the highway from the Wall of Forgotten Natives. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Avivo has plenty of success stories. Since the first Wall of Forgotten Natives, Avivo has housed more than 200 people, for whom they continue to provide services. Bastian says it may take a few tries before people move into a place that sticks.

One frustration to outreach workers about the new Wall of Forgotten Natives is the familiar faces. They are seeing people who have been sheltered in hotels or housed, yet decided to return to the encampment. The return visitors illustrate the complexity of finding housing for people who are experiencing homelessness.

“Housing is not always the right fit the first time around and there are a lot of things that come up because people have been experiencing homelessness for a long time,” Bastian said. “But our goal is to continue to work with everyone to help find the right fit, whether it be a different location, a different type of housing, a different community or different neighbors.”

A handful of people currently have housing but returned to the encampment to visit or move to temporarily. The encampment offers community and freedom that isn’t the same in supportive housing, while the weather hasn’t turned so harsh to convince people to return home.

“It’s a reality of the situation that people are likely to go back to what we know because we feel comfortable with what we know and the people we know,” Bastian said.

Tonya Jack lived at the Wall two years ago and the emergency shelter with her partner. In the intervening years, Jack moved back for a time to her reservation in Wisconsin, Lac du Flambeau, and then returned to Minneapolis.

She and her partner both were housed through Avivo but struggled to follow the terms of their leases.

“I let people stay with me, and they took advantage of me and they violated the rules of my building,” Jack said.

Another challenge was living separately. Jack and her partner have struggled with addiction, and living together has at times made it harder for them to stay sober. But living apart has also been hard. They’ve been together for two decades and have children together.

“They kept placing us in different places, and then we were trying to be together,” Jack said.

Jack’s partner has a room in a supportive living environment, though he was staying with her in the encampment for a time. He’s since moved back home while Avivo is working to help Jack find another place of her own. In the meantime, Jack is staying where she was two years ago.

The return of tents to Hiawatha and Franklin Avenues might give the impression nothing has been done since the first Wall of Forgotten Natives, but there are visible signs of progress in addressing the city’s affordable homelessness crisis.

From the encampment, construction crews can be seen on the other side of Hiawatha Avenue, working on finishing the Red Lake Nation’s 110-unit affordable housing complex geared toward Native people transitioning out of homelessness. Next door, the American Indian Community Development Corporation is rushing to open a 50-bed culturally-specific shelter by December. Native and Black Americans are the most likely to experience homelessness in Minnesota and across the country.

These projects are years in the making, however, and the economic fallout from COVID-19 has drastically increased demand for shelter and rent assistance — even as the state is already grappling with a housing crisis decades in the making.

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.