Just a week before authorities plan to relocate people living inside a large homeless encampment in south Minneapolis, humanitarian aid workers who are vital to the effort say the camp’s atmosphere has turned so ugly that they are afraid to set foot there.
In the past week, nonprofit outreach workers have complained of being harassed and forced from the camp by volunteers associated with Natives Against Heroin (NAH), a street outreach group that has been providing security and donations for people there. Two homeless men left their tents and fled this week, citing threats of violence and intimidation. Ominous postings on Facebook have fanned the fears, making aid workers afraid of venturing into the camp.
One homeless man living at the camp, David French, 53, filed a police report Tuesday alleging that an NAH volunteer threatened to torch his tent with him still inside. “I’m afraid for my life,” said French, who spoke from the safety of a heated tent across from the camp. “At some point, someone’s going to overstep their boundaries and get badly hurt or killed.”
The tensions appear to stem from an intensifying turf battle between NAH and other nonprofit agencies, which has created a hostile atmosphere for EMTs, social workers and housing counselors who have provided lifesaving assistance to vulnerable inhabitants of the camp.
James Cross, founder of NAH, defended the actions of his volunteers, saying they have to respond forcefully to negative comments about his group on Facebook and to outsiders stealing from donations at the camp. He said his group is committed to helping people find shelter, and will work with those who “come over in peace and respect.”
“We all have the same goal. We all want to get these relatives to somewhere safe,” Cross said. “But people have to understand that we’re not going to back down. We have to strike back if someone says something negative.”
Still, officials are concerned that NAH’s combative methods could complicate efforts to relocate approximately 100 people still living at the camp to an emergency shelter nearby.
City, county and American Indian agencies had hoped to move residents to the new shelter — which will consist of three large, heated tents — by the end of next week. However, outreach workers said recurring threats and harassment have hindered their efforts to tell residents about the emergency shelter and the services that will be available.
Some now fear a showdown next week unless extra security is brought in to help with the transition.
“There will be a confrontation. I can’t see how there won’t be,” warned Michael Goze, chief executive with the nonprofit American Indian Community Development Corp., which has helped people at the camp find housing and other services. “There are people over there [at the camp] who feel their power is threatened, and they’re protecting their turf. It’s thug behavior.”
The leader of one nonprofit, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, said she is no longer willing to send in staff after two of her group’s outreach workers were repeatedly accosted and threatened while trying to talk to residents and deliver assistance.
“We can’t do our work if people are harassing us,” said Patina Park, executive director of the center and chair of Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID).
NAH has been a highly visible force at the camp almost since its beginning. The group operates a large military-style tent at the center of the camp, which has become a center for donations, spiritual ceremonies and medical outreach efforts. Volunteers with the group have been handing out provisions and patrolling the site since late summer. Their unpaid volunteers often are among the first to arrive when someone at the camp overdoses or needs medical help.
On Wednesday, several NAH volunteers rushed to the aid of a young woman who had collapsed from an apparent drug overdose. While her body lay on the slush-covered sidewalk, a man delivered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while NAH volunteers arrived with syringes of Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids. After medical workers injected the drug into her upper thigh, the woman’s stomach started to rise as she began breathing again, and color returned to her face.
“We save lives,” Cross said after the rescue. “We do the work that no one else wants to do.” He added, “If people are fearful, that’s on them, because they don’t understand our ways and this lifestyle.”
After a woman died of a drug overdose in September, NAH volunteers marched through the camp, pounding drums and shouting, “Shut it down!” They ripped out tents they said belonged to drug dealers and threw their belongings in a giant pile near the center of the camp, according to videos that members of the group posted on Facebook.
“This is what happens when people die!” yelled one of the leaders of the group, as he tore at the tents.
Yet several outreach workers said the group’s volunteers have become increasingly belligerent and are impeding aid efforts.
On a recent afternoon, three women in parkas sat huddled inside a large warming tent across from the camp. The topic of their discussion: How to bring much-needed donations, including propane heaters, clothing and food, to residents of the homeless camp without attracting undue attention and getting harassed. All three said they had been berated and intimidated by NAH volunteers recently.
Stephanie Stuart, outreach navigator for the Indian Women’s Resource Center, said she has been chased off the site three times in the past few weeks. Last Sunday, Stuart said she was conducting a brief survey of camp dwellers, asking them what services they would need to move to the new shelter, when she was verbally accosted by an NAH volunteer. The man pursued her as she tried to leave, calling her “every name in the book,” Stuart said.
“It’s crazy that we’ve become the enemy,” said Stuart. “The problem is, I can’t get donations over there — not without putting other people at risk.”
She was joined at the table by Anna Leahy, who lives in a home near the camp and has been delivering firewood, tents and other supplies several times a week since September. On Wednesday, Leahy was chased off the site while trying to deliver a bag of clothing to a man who lives at the camp. An NAH volunteer, Fabian Jones, yelled obscenities at Leahy while he tried to rip the bag of clothing from her hands in an incident witnessed by a reporter.
Several people who live or have lived at the camp say they have been terrorized. An elderly homeless man, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, said NAH volunteers accused him of being a police informant and wrote “UNDER COVER PIG” in large letters on the outside of his tent. The man, who moved to the camp a month ago, said he abandoned his tent and all his belongings and has been too frightened to go back and retrieve them.
“Calling someone an ‘informant’ is a death sentence out on the streets,” the man said with anger. “Someone sees that written on your tent, and you’re likely to get a bullet through your head.”
Park said the actions of a handful of people threaten to overshadow what has been a highly successful outreach effort by a coalition of agencies to provide housing and other social services. To date, the groups have helped more than 80 people move into their own homes and apartments with support services.
The new shelter, once it opens next week, could also point the way for future efforts to help people transition to more permanent housing, Park said. “If this works, it could shift the entire model for how we do shelters citywide,” she said. “But it’s not like people are going to just grab their stuff and walk over. People need to feel safe.”
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres