On a frigid afternoon in mid-December, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told a crowd gathered at a newly erected homeless shelter in south Minneapolis that illegal drug use would not be permitted at the facility, which the city allocated $1.5 million to develop.
That pledge has since been ignored.
More than a month has passed since social service agencies relocated about 150 people from a crowded homeless camp on Franklin and Hiawatha avenues to several heated, dome-shaped tents on nearby land owned by the Red Lake Nation. City leaders hailed the temporary shelter, which is called a “navigation center,” as an innovative way to provide safe shelter and support services to a hard-to-reach population while helping them transition to more permanent housing.
Yet, despite assurances to the contrary, use of illegal drugs is widespread and overdoses are now a regular occurrence within the gated compound. Some shelter residents say people are shooting up heroin and other illegal substances within sight of center staff and without fear of repercussions. The drug use reached a tipping point early this month, when as many as eight residents suffered overdoses on a single day; one resident, Todd L. Weldon, 47, died after he overdosed in his cot at the shelter despite multiple attempts to resuscitate him.
The incidents underscore the balancing act facing the city and its partners: how to run a safe, lawful transitional site without driving away homeless people who struggle with serious addiction.
“Housing is a human right, and we believe it should not be contingent upon someone’s use or abstinence from substances,” said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that is operating the center.
But the public safety challenges are serious. Since the center opened, there have been more than 60 police calls there, say city records.
Some residents have expressed surprise that drug use has been permitted within the living areas and in plain view of shelter staff and harm-reduction specialists. “People are going to use [drugs] no matter what, but it’s so tragic that it’s happening here — in a place that was meant to be a refuge,” said Omar Torres, 36, who moved to the center last month and was a friend of Weldon’s.
The permissive atmosphere is by design: Officials said they are concerned that strict rules against drug use would drive people away from the site and make them harder to reach by social workers, prolonging their homelessness. It is also based on humane concerns that most of the residents at the new center are struggling with addiction and likely have a better chance of surviving in a supervised shelter than on the streets.
“We are not putting people out from the navigation center for drug use,” said Horsfield. “Each year, I avail myself of the largest federal housing subsidy that we have in the United States, which is the mortgage interest tax deduction … and no one comes to check on whether I’m using illicit substances.”
Even so, the prevalence of illicit drugs has provoked concern among relatives of people living at the shelter and others in the Twin Cities Indian community who were active volunteers at the now-shuttered homeless camp, formerly known as the Wall of the Forgotten Natives. Many feel shut out of the navigation center and are concerned by what they see as a growing isolation of the shelter from the Indian community.
“It’s going to take a community to help this community, but right now, the [navigation] center is more clinical than community,” said James Cross, founder of the street outreach group Natives Against Heroin (NAH), whose volunteers were active at the Hiawatha camp.
Outreach efforts by some nonprofits, including NAH, have been hindered by the navigation center’s strict visiting policy. Every weekend since the center opened, a group of mostly Indian community members gather in the parking lot across from the center near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station. They bring home-cooked chili or stew, dished out by volunteers while children welcome people by pounding drums in a circle. The volunteers are stuck on the periphery; most are not allowed to set foot beyond the chain-metal fence that surrounds the center.
Shawn Phillips, pastoral minister of the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in south Minneapolis, was barred when he asked permission to walk through the center with burning dry sage, an Indian ritual known as “smudging,” which is meant to purify souls and drive away dark spirits.
“It’s frustrating,” Phillips said. “There are people whose hearts have been touched by all the stories of people living at the center. They want to bring goodness and hope but are being turned away.”
Among those blocked from entering the navigation center is Arlene Thomas, 55, who lives in an apartment building overlooking the center.
For months, she maintained a daily presence at the homeless tent camp, doling out clothing, food and hugs. Known as “Auntie” by camp dwellers, Thomas had visited the Wall of the Forgotten Natives hundreds of times since last August.
Yet on five separate trips to the site, Thomas has been turned away by security guards. “If people are overdosing all around you, then that’s the time to bring in the community to help, to cheer people up,” she said.
Sam Strong, tribal secretary for the Red Lake Nation, which coordinates many services at the site, said efforts are underway to bring more cultural activities and ceremonies into the navigation center. At the same time, he warned, the center has to maintain safeguards to prevent drug dealers and other criminals from entering.
Officials also said they want to avoid the tense conflicts that occurred in the final weeks of the encampment, when the atmosphere became so hostile that several aid workers were afraid to visit the site.
“The first priority was to get everyone to a warm, safe place, which we accomplished,” Strong said. “The second step is to fill out that whole service schedule to get in as many people who want to help as possible.”
For now, some Indian residents at the navigation center said they still feel isolated from their community.
Katherine “Kat” Yanez, 34, is homeless and living at the shelter. She recently learned that her older sister, Celesta, had tried to visit her but was denied entry. Two weeks later, her sister died of an overdose in her St. Paul home. Yanez had intended to warn her about the dangerous batch of fentanyl-laced heroin circulating through the community.
On Monday, Yanez maintained an all-night vigil next to her sister’s body at the Gichitwaa Kateri Church. Standing over her casket, Yanez spread rose petals over her sister’s body and carefully groomed her long black hair. By morning, an exhausted Yanez reflected on her emotions as friends and NAH members lifted the casket into a transport van for the four-hour journey north to her burial site on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
“It hurts. It really hurts,” Yanez said. “I just wanted one more chance to tell my big sister how much I loved her and cared about her, and that was denied.”
As others watched solemnly, Yanez kissed her sister on her forehead, whispered “safe journey” over her body, and then buried her head in a friend’s outstretched arms.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres