Two years after a massive tent encampment in south Minneapolis brought attention to the state’s growing homeless population, people have returned to pitch tents at what was called the Wall of Forgotten Natives.
More than 40 tents flapped in the wind against the wall and next to speeding traffic between Hiawatha and Franklin avenues Thursday. The group decided to move there after their previous camp, on a city-owned lot at 2313 S. 13th Av., was cleared by the city Wednesday.
Native leaders and outreach workers, including Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement, held a news conference Thursday near the encampment urging the city, Hennepin County and the state to find stable housing for the homeless.
“I feel sorry for them. It’s pitiful what we have to do and the effect it has on our community,” said Bellecourt, 84. “We can’t just sit around and think about where we’re going to put up a camp next.”
The re-occupation of the site, which had been barricaded by the state, comes during an increasingly confrontational atmosphere between officials and advocates for the homeless.
In a statement, city officials said they cleared the previous encampment because of health and safety concerns and with help of nonprofit organizations. They were expected to meet with the state and county Thursday afternoon to talk about how to help those who moved back in.
Shelter beds remain available, Hennepin County officials said in a statement, while arguing that the only solution to homelessness is “increasing access to affordable housing.” The city and county have recently allocated $8 million to create three new shelters in the city, including one specific to Native residents.
Still, Indigenous leaders have not been satisfied with their response, said Robert Lilligren, chairman of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors.
“We need to do better for our Native and non-Native relatives who are sleeping outside, sleeping in places unfit for human habitation,” he said. “We need to remember: Winter is only a few months away.”
Some of them called on the city to open the Roof Depot, a municipal site farther south in the East Phillips neighborhood, to house people during the winter. The city is developing the site for a new public works maintenance facility and to store work vehicles.
The Wall of Forgotten Natives became the largest and most visible homeless settlement in Minnesota in the summer of 2018. The sprawling camp had several hundred residents, many of them Native American, and was troubled by drug overdoses, disease, violence, fires and deaths.
After an aggressive push to connect campers with social services, the encampment was closed at the end of the year. Some were temporarily relocated to a nearby shelter space called the Navigation Center.
Terysa Dircks had lived at the wall and later at the Navigation Center, where her fiancé died from a drug overdose. Still homeless, she returned to pitch a tent at the wall Wednesday.
Dircks, who said she has gone seven days without using drugs, said people like her who live on the street feel as though they are “shunned and pushed around and forgotten about.”
“Being pushed from place to place, told that we could live here for a certain amount of time … and then to come take it away with bulldozers and police and dogs … how does a human react to something like that?” she said. “Until you’ve been out here firsthand … there’s no way you could ever understand the impact that it has on our lives.”
The new encampment at the Wall of Forgotten Natives is one of many that have grown across the city after the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. There are camps at more than 20 parks across the city, down from more than 40 in early August, according to Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent Al Bangoura.
During a Park Board meeting Wednesday, Bangoura said all park encampments would likely be disbanded in October, saying cold overnight temperatures would pose a risk and that it is illegal to light fires on park property.
One of the encampments is on the northeast corner of Peavey Park, just blocks away from the Wall of Forgotten Natives and directly next to Hope Academy, a private school that started classes this week. Bangoura said the Park Board attempted to clear the encampment last month, but protesters prevented them from doing so.
“We have de-escalated and backed away from conflict during a time in the city of ongoing civil unrest,” he said Wednesday. “We continue to seek a peaceful disbandment of the camp, with law enforcement used as a last resort. However, the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement and other advocates have created a challenging situation for the school and families who attend the school.”
At the news conference Thursday, several people wore blue shirts that said “Native Americans were never homeless before 1492,” the year Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas.
“We’re the landlords, we’re the caretakers,” Bellecourt said. “And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the end of the month, and the rent is due.”