I protested the eviction of a homeless encampment the other day and wound up in a photo in the Star Tribune, clutching my chihuahua Pauly, clearly caught in an act of civil disobedience. I'm thinking about how I got here.
I don't support homeless encampments. I don't want to live outdoors. Nor do I want others to be unsheltered.
In 2019, I brought food and supplies to the Wall of Forgotten Natives. When the Drake shelter burned, I gave more. Then came COVID, the killing of George Floyd, Powderhorn, legal park encampments and the long hot summer of 2020.
At one of the encampments near my home in north Minneapolis I got to know the residents. Multiple evictions led to a very large camp being established in mid-September in the North Loop close to my office. A community took shape. When someone entered the camp, others would help set up their tent and share supplies.
One family is unsheltered as a result of a series of events. Mom applied for food assistance and the county sought child support from Dad. His driver's license was suspended for nonpayment. He was arrested for driving after suspension and his car was towed. Both Mom and Dad lost their transportation to work.
One single mother worked as a server at a popular restaurant when she was diagnosed with a vertebral tumor. Her family lost everything and is drowning in medical debt.
A union sheet metal worker, reeling from the death of his mother and despondent over his divorce, got arrested for a DWI and had his truck impounded with all his tools.
A neighbor of the camp donated material to build a tiny house and had more lined up. About 10 residents pitched in and the mood was optimistic. Tiny homes with dignity and security are the dream of nearly every encampment resident I've met. This one was built on the edge of the camp, on Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) land. It was promptly condemned, leading to its destruction.
A vandal entered the camp and destroyed a young man's tent and all of his belongings. He spent the next day under a blanket, inconsolable. That night brought a big snowfall. I drove to the camp and found him, freezing. I brought him to my house, and the next day I heard his story. He is a talented sushi chef. He is kind, funny, brilliant and had an injury that led to an opioid addiction he has not yet overcome.
The next night, the city began dumping huge piles of plowed snow from around the city in the camp. Two unoccupied tents were buried. Another contained a young woman escaping domestic violence. Residents screamed for her to get out and dragged her and her belongings to safety, inadvertently onto MnDOT land. The tent was condemned before she awoke the next morning.
The encampment has grown, especially with the eviction of the small camp in Sheridan Park. One new resident served our country in Afghanistan and lost her leg and has a prosthetic limb. She is Ojibwe.
Everyone whose stories I have told is Indigenous, Black or a person of color.
There is an epidemic of unsheltered homelessness across the U.S., fueled in part by national economic policies, housing prices, the pandemic, pharmaceutical companies pushing addictive opioids and a broken mental health care system. Very little of it was caused by our city, but we must not compound the harm.
When I watched George Floyd choke and gasp and beg for his life, I wondered if I would have had the courage to confront his killers. Now people are being evicted from encampments in deadly cold temperatures with the only option to give up all of their belongings and seek overnight-only shelter or rehab. And I see people dying, like a young woman evicted from Sheridan Park.
The other day I was walking my dog and I got calls from camp residents saying they were about to be bulldozed. Pauly and I rushed to help.
We can do better. South Minneapolis is celebrating an Art Shanty Project. In cities like Austin, Texas, people are coming together to build tiny home communities. Other countries, like Finland, are taking a housing-first approach, and it's working.
We can convene some artists and architects and people of imagination and goodwill and meet inside the encampments and get all of our neighbors safely housed. Then go from there.
Nikki Carlson lives in Minneapolis.