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Out of the pitch-black predawn, dozens of heavily bundled activists assembled on North Girard and 2nd Avenues in Minneapolis to shield the residents of the Near North homeless encampment from imminent disbandment. They brought wagons laden with hand-warmers and McDonald's sandwiches, and built fires from scrap wood as they watched for dump trucks and skid steers.

Among them were five City Council members, four of them newly elected. City Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah had put out a call on social media the day before, asking Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to suspend all encampment evictions until the city comes up with a policy of closing encampments humanely, and only after all residents are housed.

"To destroy peoples' homes with nothing more than a list of possibly underfunded and overwhelmed resources in the midst of a Coronavirus surge while temperatures are routinely below zero is inhumane," she wrote, calling volunteers to join her at the camp at 6 a.m. Tuesday.

Council Members Jason Chavez, Aisha Chughtai, Jeremiah Ellison and Elliott Payne answered the call.

City and county officials say they already have worked to move most of the residents into permanent housing, and that only six to eight people were still living there. The camp's defenders said there were at least a dozen remaining.

Earlier this month, the city posted notices at the camp declaring Jan. 11 as eviction day. As word spread online in activist circles to galvanize around Near North, staff added, "week of" in tiny writing to qualify that eviction enforcement might happen spontaneously at any time over the next several days. Those gathered burned the eviction notices and discussed the possibility of monitoring the camp around the clock. Some council members said they, too, would return day after day.

"That's nasty," said former Near North resident Sandy Kelting of the open-ended eviction threat. "That just gives them the chance to sneak attack. When they tried to do this last year, it was scary. The volunteers were here 24/7 for two months after that. They felt like guardian angels."

Kelting, who told the Star Tribune last year that she had bad experiences with overcrowding and disrespect from staff in emergency shelters, eventually moved into an apartment in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis with the help of a caseworker from Avivo.

She returned to Near North on Tuesday to defend current residents. The camp had been a blessing while she applied for housing, Kelting said, because it provided the community and stability that she did not get from temporary shelter.

Another former camp resident, Cassandra Caples, had similar misgivings with emergency overnight shelter. She said she suffers from post-traumatic stress and cannot tolerate living in close quarters with strangers. In her experience, shelters kicked people out during the day, forcing them to ride the trains with all their belongings or find other warm crannies in the streets to hide until nightfall, when the shelter doors would open again. Caples preferred Near North, where she lived a year before moving into an apartment in Edina with the help of county caseworkers.

"Why would they wait until the wintertime to do some [expletive] like that?" she said of the new eviction order. "That's the problem we always had. That's the frustration. That's the biggest struggle."

As of mid-morning Tuesday, city workers were nowhere to be seen. While volunteers still thronged the camp, the anticipation that the city would attempt to sweep Near North had begun to fade.

The city's official position on homeless encampments is that they "represent a serious health and safety risk, particularly for those staying within the encampment," and that city ordinance prohibits camping on public land, such as Near North.

"There remains dozens of shelter beds available on a daily basis," said city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie. "Any time there is a closure of an encampment in the city, city staff are onsite to help with connections to shelter leading up to the closure. For this particular encampment, the city is monitoring the situation and has to remain nimble in the event that circumstances change."

Since the Wall of Forgotten Natives, the mega-tent city that emerged at Franklin and Hiawatha Avenues in 2018, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, a myriad of reforms and improvements have transformed Hennepin County's shelter and transitional housing system.

Homeward Bound, a culturally specific shelter run by the American Indian Community Development Corporation, grew out of lessons learned at the Wall. The Avivo tiny home indoor village opened last March in response to demand for low-barrier shelter with more privacy and tolerance for drug use on site as well as pets. Later this year, Simpson Housing Services will demolish its church and shelter in Whittier and develop a housing complex with emergency shelter and supportive housing in individual units.

Most shelters are now open 24/7 so residents who reserve a bed can keep that bed day after day. They no longer need to move out in the morning, and storage lockers are available to keep belongings safe, said David Hewitt, the county's director of housing stability.

"Those things are relatively recent developments," said Hewitt. "People who have an experience of shelter from a different community or indeed from five years ago may have a different understanding of how things are likely to look, so it's important to bring up-to-date information on what the current scenario is."

Erin Wixsten, a county official working on solutions to homelessness, said street outreach workers began to intensify health and housing services at Near North last July, at a time when new leadership took over at the camp.

By the fall, caseworkers had engaged with all of the camp's residents and helped the vast majority transition into housing, until a point when outreach staff outnumbered residents, and only six remained as of the city's newest enforcement order, Wixsten said.

"There really aren't that many people left," said Wixsten. "We don't want people to be moved. However ... even if they do relocate, we're able to quickly re-engage with them because we know where they're going. All of this was really informed by the people that were living in this location."

Camp volunteers agree that many residents have found housing through a combination of social services and community support, but they say more people have moved into Near North since the county's last count.

Correction: Previous headlines of this story misidentified the location of the encampment.