Indigenous leaders alarmed at chaos of growing Franklin Street encampment

By: - September 8, 2021 7:39 am

Jasmine Davis, 34, helps gather trash at an encampment where he was staying along Franklin Avenue near Cedar Avenue Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Davis said this was his first time experiencing homelessness after recently losing his apartment. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

As cars whizzed by on Franklin Avenue, Jasmine Davis, 34, stood inches away from their tires Tuesday morning, picking up discarded, ketchup-smeared Styrofoam takeout boxes, empty Marlboro cartons, an orange Crush can and a donut with barely a bite missing.

Davis wore latex gloves and a blue Bryn Mawr jersey, but wasn’t one of the outreach workers often seen wearing lanyards and masks. Davis just doesn’t like messes, even though he’s in one: He lives in one of the tents pitched in a median between the four lanes of Franklin traffic, tents that have multiplied since June into an encampment right in between and alongside busy lanes of traffic.

Davis said he was homeless after being put out of the place he’d been living for four years. He said it was his first time living on the street.

“It’s really kinda spooky but it’s OK,” he said quietly as the traffic nearly drowned out his voice.

All around him, scattered in the grass and dirt, were needles. 

Joe Hobot, president and CEO of the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center across the street, said Tuesday their employees pick up about 1,000 needles per day off their adjacent property, where a worker was picking up trash and keeping the tents at bay. 

He said the tents first sprang up on the median near Cedar and Franklin, near the Homeward Bound Shelter, which was opened in December by the American Indian Community Development Corporation for Native Americans. The tents quickly multiplied, moving under the light rail underpass and east to Cedar Avenue, then across the street to the Volunteers of America property and north to Scooterville at 20th and Cedar. 

Joe Hobot, head of American Indian OIC, and Marisa Cummings, president and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, talk about the evolving situation outside an encampment along Franklin Avenue near Cedar Avenue Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Dozens of tents — and garbage, a couch, a pink toddler bike (no sign of a child), afghan, and several abandoned NiceRide bikes — now dot the median and right-of-way.

The encampment tends to get more active — and more like a party and open-air drug market — at night, Hobot said, with outsiders coming in to exploit the homeless people by selling drugs or trying to traffic people.

“It’s untenable,” Hobot said. “It’s a little pocket of lawlessness.” 

A baby was found dead in a vehicle near the encampment, several people have overdosed, a couple people have been hit by cars and one person climbed into a passing car. Sometimes people stand in the middle of traffic, panhandling. 

The COVID-19 pandemic — and last summer’s civil unrest following the police murder of George Floyd — has exposed the Twin Cities’ homelessness crisis, with hundreds of people living in tent encampments.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, places where unhoused people previously sought shelter, like mass transit, were not as readily available. People also avoided traditional homeless shelters, fearing COVID-19 outbreaks that swept through shelters in places like San Francisco.

Cities, counties and state governments have taken varied approaches. State and county governments have spent millions housing hundreds of people in hotel rooms.  

Hobot said the crisis on Franklin offers fresh evidence of the whack-a-mole approach the city has taken to encampments. The Minneapolis Police Department is reluctant to get involved, Hobot said. The department is down more than 200 officers since early 2020 and fighting for its political life in the November election.

“Essentially, it’s lawless,” Hobot said while surveying the scene from the American Indian OIC at 1845 E. Franklin Ave. “Now we get the political hot potato.” 

He’s especially concerned because American Indian OIC’s alternative high school, Takoda Prep, resumes classes Wednesday.

Marisa Cummings, president and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, which is just down the street on the American Indian corridor, said drug dealers drive up and sell drugs right out in the open “like clockwork.” 

“It’s not acceptable in Eagan; it’s not acceptable anywhere else. Why is it acceptable in our community?” she said. 

City officials send them to the county — telling them the 10-foot median of Franklin Avenue is county property — and the county refers them to the city. County officials told Hobot they would clear the area, but don’t want to be the lead agency after Minneapolis police clashed with camp defenders while trying to clear an encampment at 205 N. Girard Ave. in March. 

An empty needle sits on the ground in an encampment along Franklin Avenue near Cedar Avenue Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Hobot said some well-meaning, grassroots groups foment dissent in the encampments and provoke police, who were merely there to assist outreach workers. 

“Now we have a depleted MPD that is very much gun-shy… about getting involved with these encampments,” Hobot said. “Because of the jurisdictional game of hot potato, it’s created this gray area of a physical space where no laws apply — unfettered drug use, unfettered prostitution, unfettered drug dealing with no law enforcement repercussions or policing and it grows and it grows and it grows.”

Hobot said he talked to Mayor Jacob Frey about the encampment last week, and was told the city is working on it but also dealing with other homeless encampments across the city while confronting a staffing shortage and an increase in crime since the pandemic.

“It does not look like a damn thing is being done,” Hobot said.

The mayor said in a statement to the Reformer he’s working closely with Hennepin County, Metro Urban Indian Directors and the community “to identify safer options for those presently at the encampment at Franklin and Cedar.”

MUID — a group of American Indian nonprofits — had a heated discussion about the encampment last week, because they believe federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars should be used to help address the encampment, Hobot said.

Cummings has a plan to address the encampment by moving people into hotels, but needs funding. MIWRC’s Wawokiye program works with unsheltered people and people being sex trafficked or sexually assaulted. The encampment is a breeding ground for trafficking women, she said.  

She said not everyone wants to go to a shelter, so they need to look at why these encampments spring up, and how to provide culturally specific services to get people on a “healing journey.”

“Everybody doesn’t need a flophouse,” Cummings said. “A lot of folks even have places to live. They’re choosing to live here. Because it supports the lifestyle that they’re choosing to live right now. So there needs to be a variety of solutions that are presented.” 

While she spoke on a corner near the encampment, a Native woman rode up on a bicycle and asked if Cummings had seen her daughter — she hasn’t been seen in more than a week and was spotted at a homeless camp. Meanwhile, she’s caring for her twin 1-year-old daughters. 

Dolo Davin (left), who was visiting family members at the encampment, and Cameron Anderson, right, who used to stay in the encampment, fix up a bike together along Franklin Avenue near Cedar Avenue Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Cummings said that last year during the second “Wall of Forgotten Natives,” her organization proposed a pilot program to put up 30 people in rooms, and got state funding for five.

“It’s not our job to come up with solutions to these problems, but we’re doing it,” Cummings said. “So they need to fund us so that we can help create a solution to this problem. And I’m not saying that, you know, everything we’re doing is perfect, nor is it ideal for all of us to have to do this work. That would be what taxpayer dollars are allocated for.”

Meanwhile, garbage is being collected by the city and portable toilets have been installed.

“I can understand the impetus and the motivation to do that, but as you start putting in these layers of infrastructure, you start making the camp a very real place to be,” Hobot said. “Right now it’s not safe, but there are these unaffiliated do-gooders from outside the community that can actually serve to complicate factors.”

Last year, as they were dealing with the Wall of Forgotten Natives encampment, three organizations were coming to serve lunch, Cummings said. Well-meaning people drop off food and tents. 

That benevolence was again evident Tuesday: An untouched loaf of bread sat on the ground next to the street. Uneaten fruit cups were scooped into a garbage pile by Davis and then picked up by a city garbage truck. Dozens of apparently donated shoes were neatly lined up under the underpass.

A pile of clothing had just been dropped off by Fisseha Gishen, an Ethiopian who spoke limited English, saying this is the second time he’s walked over to donate to help “my brother, my sister.”

One woman rifled through the pile but didn’t want to talk, saying she needed to get over to the nearby Taco Bell to get ice, for $2 a cup. 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.