South Minneapolis resident Penny St. Clair was hesitant to speak her mind at a standing-room-only meeting of East Phillips neighbors in the Phillips Community Center on Tuesday night. Some in attendance were ardent encampment defenders, and she worried about being assailed. But she went for it.
St. Clair owns a home a block from the community center and said she is committed to the neighborhood. But the constant rotation of encampments in East Phillips brings garbage and needles to her yard, making a prisoner of the stepbrother she's raising as a son. One time, someone entered her garage and broke the lights for no apparent reason. She's finding it difficult to stay.
"It's hard watching these young people destroy their life," St. Clair said. "I wish I could do something to help, but I can't."
City Council Member Jason Chavez, who represents the area, convened the meeting after MnDOT's expulsion of a large camp from the edge of Hiawatha Avenue pushed people back into the heart of the East Phillips neighborhood. Now more than 75 tents holding an estimated 150 people have been staked in a lot at 23rd Street and 13th Avenue. It's the newest iteration of encampments that have repeatedly popped up at the site in recent years, bringing gunshots in the past, neighbors said.
There seemed to be consensus that repeat sweeps of camps are not bringing the neighborhood relief. But attendees spent most of the meeting arguing about the root causes of encampments: the lack of truly affordable housing, an emergency shelter system always at capacity, and sweeps that sever connections between caseworkers and highly mobile clients.
"We have a drug problem, folks, and we're ignoring it," said Mike Goze of the American Indian Community Development Corp., which runs an affordable housing complex and emergency shelter. "Our bar right now is on the ground. We're walking over it all the time. This room needs to be filled with Native people, because we're the ones talked about. Our community is what has to come up."
Pierre Bowdry, who lived on the streets before serving time in jail and becoming sober, suggested giving people homes and a chance to live a purposeful life.
"From an addict perspective, that's the reason why a lot of us out there, because we feel like there's no hope, like nobody cares whether we live or die by suicide," he said. "What do we need? If we get homes, we can then work on ourselves. We can find our minds back, start to enjoy things we used to love in the past."
Government officials present at Tuesday's meeting included State Sen. Omar Fateh and Rep. Aisha Gomez, who represent south Minneapolis, as well as council members Elliott Payne and Robin Wonsley. They asked people to participate in upcoming city budget hearings and promised to relay concerns to Enrique Velázquez, the mayor's nominee for director of regulatory services.
Next door to the Phillips Community Center, Little Earth resident and sobriety coach Nicole Mason runs the Camp Nenookaasi encampment according to rules of cleanliness and safer drug use. She hopes her strategy will allow the camp to remain open long enough to connect its occupants with housing and treatment services.
Three weeks in, the camp has a distinctly different feel than other encampments. A wide-open avenue, kept clean of debris, stretches between neat rows of tents. Talking circles and ceremonies take place there. The front of the camp is a sober zone where relatives of the homeless residents can visit as they drop off donations. There are needle deposit boxes, portable bathrooms from the Sanctuary Supply Depot and recycling bins with signs reading: "No food. No trash. No [excrement]. No needles."
Walking between the rows of tents in search of one resident's lost dog, Mason called to a woman to pick up a small pile of trash outside her tent. She remarked that she doesn't like seeing the shopping carts parked everywhere, but that it's how people transport their belongings.
"Up here, absolutely no needles in their ear, no foils in your hand. You keep that in your pocket," she said. "You have to have that awareness of how you present yourself out in the community."
Mason keeps a record of everyone who moves into Nenookaasi. Each tent has a number. There have been several overdoses, all reversed, she said. County and nonprofit outreach teams have been housing people.
Still, neighbors are concerned.
Three years ago when there was another encampment at 23rd and 13th, Dawn LaRoque recalled having to hit the floor with her daughters as bullets rained against their house. Neighbors are scared of that happening again, she said.
"You've done a lot and I can feel the difference," said LaRoque to Mason at the Tuesday meeting. "But it still isn't enough."
Neighbors who have lived beside encampments over the past few years have seen drug and sex traffickers target the camps' most vulnerable occupants.
"We may not have found the answers but it needs to be discussed. Because there are Native American women who are being preyed upon," LaRoque said. "I want to know why the police aren't more involved."
Community members at Tuesday's meeting proposed solutions including multi-jurisdictional coordination on encampment response, overdose prevention sites, safe outdoor spaces, wrap-around treatment and housing services, homelessness navigation hubs and pathways to economic mobility.
In December 2022, the city created standard operating procedures for closing encampments. Its Homeless Response Team surveys encampments but does not make housing or treatment referrals. The city does not provide toilets or trash pickup at encampments. Its encampment website encourages property owners with tents spilling onto their properties to hire private security and rent a fence.
On Tuesday, one city health department employee was in attendance. The department earlier declined an interview request for its new commissioner, Damōn Chaplin, on encampments.