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Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and American Indian leaders Thursday pledged to find stable housing for approximately 120 people living in a large and growing homeless encampment in south Minneapolis.

At a crowded news conference, Frey promised a “full-throated effort” by city and county social service agencies to provide housing and other services to the tent city at Hiawatha and Cedar Avenues, near the Little Earth housing complex. Frey said he aims to eliminate the encampment by the end of September, as the city works on longer-term solutions for expanding the city’s supply of affordable housing and reducing its growing homeless population.

“Housing is a right, and the city has an obligation to step up and we are stepping up,” Frey said at a news conference at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis, which is just blocks from the homeless settlement. “We will be working to ensure that those present at the encampment receive every service they need.”

The encampment consists mostly of Indians and has roughly doubled in size over the past two weeks to more than 70 tents, transforming a narrow stretch of state land into what is believed to be among the largest and most visible homeless settlements ever seen in Minnesota. Many of the tent dwellers say they have struggled to find affordable housing and feel safer living in a large group, watching over one another, than sleeping alone on the streets or in emergency shelters.

City and county health officials have been alarmed by the camp’s growing size and health risks and have expressed concern that the line of tents may become a permanent feature of the city landscape, much like tent cities along the West Coast.

The encampment has several known cases of a drug-resistant infection from bacteria known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to sepsis, pneumonia, bloodstream infections and death. There are also reports of hepatitis C, sexually transmitted illnesses and scabies. Heroin and methamphetamine use is common at the site; outreach groups have been distributing overdose response kits with clean needles and naloxone, a drug that can counter the effects of opioids.

City officials and nonprofit groups that serve the Indian community said they will work aggressively to meet the September deadline.

In coming weeks, outreach workers will canvass the sprawling encampment and interview each resident about their housing needs and address the barriers that prevent them from finding stable housing. In some cases, officials will be negotiating directly with area landlords to help people move. The city has also begun consulting property owners about converting empty space in their buildings into affordable apartments for people who are homeless, officials said.

Fears of trafficking

The outreach effort has gained urgency over the past week amid reports of increased drug use and violence at the site. Last week, gunfire erupted near the encampment, frightening many of the tent dwellers, though no one was injured. At a public safety briefing Thursday, Sgt. Grant Snyder, the Minneapolis Police Department’s homeless liaison, spoke of the looming threat of human trafficking, citing reports of “groups of people going from tent to tent looking for single women.” People living at the encampment said there have been several drug overdoses, though no one has died.

“In a lot of ways it’s really a small city, and with that it’s brought city-sized problems,” Snyder said.

At Thursday’s news conference, James Cross, the founder of Natives Against Heroin, a 12,000-member street outreach group, held up a box containing hundreds of used needles and syringes collected at the encampment. “This is a public health emergency,” Cross declared. “We don’t want this to turn into a drug alley.”

One concern among homeless advocates is that Hennepin County’s supply of temporary shelter beds has not kept pace with the area’s growing homeless population. There are nearly 850 shelter beds in the county, but these beds are routinely filled by 10 a.m., leaving many people without a safe place to sleep by nightfall. The encampment near Little Earth started with just a few tents this spring but grew rapidly in part because authorities had forced them off other encampments, say those living at the site.

“This [encampment] is just the visual manifestation of what’s been happening across this country for years,” said John Tribbett, street outreach manager for St. Stephen’s Human Services, a Minneapolis nonprofit that has been providing direct outreach to people at the encampment.

Long-term solutions

Still, city and county officials made it clear that they are looking for longer-term solutions as well as temporary housing. For instance, the city is exploring ways to streamline local regulations and ordinances to speed up efforts by community groups to convert buildings into affordable housing.

The city is also reaching out to landlords to encourage them to remove certain rental barriers, such as rules barring people with felony convictions or prior evictions. Officials are also looking for solutions from other cities, such as Philadelphia, that have found housing and substance-use treatment for people in large homeless encampments, said Rivera-Vandermyde. “We are willing to consider any positive, forward-thinking option,” she said.

‘All of our resources’

To bolster the outreach effort, the nonprofit American Indian Community Development Corp.(AICDC) plans to develop a special “hygiene services area,” just a block from the encampment on E. Franklin Avenue, with toilets and showers for people at the encampment. The site also will serve as a staging area for social service agencies to help people access housing, medical care and chemical dependency treatment programs. City workers have already set up seven portable toilets and four hand-washing stations at the encampment.

“If we make a concentrated effort, and put all of our resources to the forefront, then we can make significant progress in finding people safe housing,” said Michael Goze, chief executive of the AICDC.

Gretchen Nickence, 54, who lives near the center of the encampment, exemplifies the challenges as the city rushes to find solutions. She has struggled with alcohol abuse since she was in her early 20s, rotating through treatment more than a dozen times. Nickence said she refuses to stay in a homeless shelter overnight because “there are too many fights,” and because she is concerned they will not accept her dark-gray cat, Maaingan, which she found on the streets and now considers her most loyal companion.

“It’s too crowded here and these tents won’t stop a stray bullet,” Nickence said as she stroked her cat while standing outside her tent. “But it’s still better than sleeping on the streets alone.”

chris.serres@startribune.com libor.jany@startribune.com