One blanket and one bag of clothes.
That’s all that Denise Deer and her four children, ages 4 to 16, each held in their hands when they arrived at a homeless encampment in south Minneapolis. Together they found a patch of worn grass near another family and waited with trepidation as the skies darkened. “All I could think was, ‘What are we all doing here?’ ” Deer said.
But that sense of foreboding would prove short-lived. Within minutes, volunteers with the street outreach group Natives Against Heroin (NAH) sprang into action, helping the family secure a spacious tent, sleeping bags, food and other provisions. Days later, a social worker identified a small apartment nearby that could house the family. “We never in our wildest dreams imagined this,” Deer said, as volunteers dropped off bowls of chili and fry bread to her tent on a recent Saturday.
The Deer family’s experience reflects the unusual approach that Minneapolis city officials and American Indian leaders are taking to address the crowded homeless camp near Hiawatha and Cedar avenues, which sprang up almost overnight last month and has more than tripled in size, becoming one of the largest homeless settlements ever seen in the state.
In major cities across the country, officials have responded to rising rates of homelessness with sweeps, raids, arrests and other punitive measures designed to break up large camps and keep people on the move. A 2016 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which surveyed 187 American cities, found that three-quarters of all homeless encampments in the U.S. are illegal; only 4 percent are considered legal.
By contrast, Minneapolis city leaders have made a deliberate decision to embrace the encampment as part of a wider community effort to combat homelessness. Instead of clearing the site, a coalition of city, county and American Indian agencies have launched a massive outreach effort to deliver housing assistance, medical care and other social services. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey signaled his intent to work with the tent dwellers last month when he pledged, before a large crowd assembled at the American Indian Center, a “full-throated effort” to find housing for everyone at the encampment by the end of September. The mayor then surprised some in the room by asserting that the encampment is situated on land stolen from American Indians. “It’s Dakota property,” Frey declared.
City officials said the decision is driven by practical concerns. Sweeps of encampments tend to make matters worse for individuals who are homeless, by cutting them off from social services and destroying relationships that outreach workers have built with residents, said Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, the city coordinator.
“Sweeps just drive people further into the shadows,” she said. “We are committed to a more humane approach.”
‘This is our America’
Since the intensive outreach began, social service agencies have referred about 30 people at the camp to housing providers, and outreach workers have ferried dozens more to medical clinics and appointments with substance-use treatment providers. Each day, donations of clothes, food and medical supplies pass through a large tent operated byNAH, which has become a makeshift command center. Dressed in red-and-white shirts, NAH volunteers have become a highly visible force, patrolling the site at night, building tents and regularly sweeping the area for used drug needles.
The large concentration of tent dwellers has made it easier for street outreach teams to reach people, many of whom suffer from serious illnesses and substance-use disorders. On a recent afternoon, a circle formed outside NAH’s tent as a visiting doctor removed stitches from the foot of John Martin, who was wounded during a shooting in early May at the Little Earth housing project in Minneapolis. “I wish all the people driving by would stop and look at what’s happening, because this is our America and people here are hurting,” said Linda Julik, a NAH volunteer, gesturing toward the rush-hour traffic.
Yet the outpouring of support has created fresh dilemmas for public officials determined to prevent the encampment from becoming permanent. The promise of medical care and access to safe housing has turned the camp into a trusted destination for the most vulnerable of the area’s homeless population, including families with young children, pregnant mothers and seniors with disabilities.
What began this spring as a small camp consisting of about a dozen single adults has swelled to more than 200. Outreach workers say the encampment is now home to at least three pregnant women and five families with school-age children.
The growing number of children and people with disabilities has increased the urgency of outreach efforts and raised logistical questions about how to arrange school bus pickups at the site and transportation for people in wheelchairs. Last month saw the arrival of a homeless mother, Myrna Threelegs, who is caring for her 26-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy and a husband who has been unable to walk since suffering a severe stroke. The family had spent the past year living in a car.
“This place is going to get bigger and bigger because it’s the only safe place we can go to get relief,” said Threelegs from a tent donated by NAH.
It was midafternoon at the tent city, and the Deer family was still drying out from a torrential downpour the previous evening. Sheets of muddy water had poured down the sloping sidewalk that intersects the encampment and turned the grass outside their tent into a swamp. Families were hanging damp clothes on a maze of ropes strung between tents and the trees buttressing the sound wall.
When the sun broke through, the youngest of the Deer children — Koda, 4, Shilo, 8, and Sonny Jr., 13 — emerged from their tent and quickly found playmates their age from among the tents nearby. With their parents watching, the children ran and played for hours along a busy sidewalk strewn with trash. Denise Deer tried to keep the children away from a blood-soaked patch of grass where someone had left a bandage the night before.
“The kids really like it out here, but it’s still a messed up situation,” she said.
Like many of the new arrivals, the Deer family was drawn here by the promise of stable housing. They have spent the past three years rotating through temporary shelters and sleeping on the floors of relatives’ apartments. The family’s search for a home has been hindered by the fact that they have three evictions on their rental history, and the father, Sonny Deer, had several misdemeanor convictions. They receive about $800 a month through the state’s cash assistance program for low-income families, but that has not been enough to save for a deposit and one month’s advance rent, she said.
On Aug. 23, Sonny Deer’s mother dropped the family off on the street in front of the encampment, leaving them with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Deer said she was initially concerned about the safety of her children after hearing about drug use at the camp; but her fears were allayed somewhat when she spotted other families she knew and saw NAH volunteers patrolling the site.
“It feels like a community now,” she said.
The Deers have not found a permanent home, but a social worker with the nonprofit Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center came by their tent recently with good news: A two-bedroom apartment might be available soon. It would be cramped for a six-person family, but it was the first time in years that the Deers felt they had a realistic hope of living in a place of their own.
“You know, all the moms who are out here want the same thing — a roof for their children and some stability,” Deer said. “We’re not asking for much, really.”