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A north Minneapolis food shelf that has served thousands of families, including many newly arrived Ecuadorian refugees, has closed so it can sort through its problems with the IRS.

Camden Collective shut down most of its programming on June 29, including its weekly food distribution. It has supported more than 25,000 people so far this year and had been on track to surpass last year's number by nearly 20%.

But founder and director Anna Gerdeen said she decided to shut down after the food shelf became stuck in a bureaucratic limbo of nonprofit filing issues, eventually leading to the loss of its tax-exempt status in December.

"It's going to be hard," Gerdeen said. "It's going to be a loss for the community, and not just [because of the] food. It was a gathering place."

In the meantime, she said, she will be reapplying for tax-exempt status for the food shelf, which served 43,000 people in 2023.

Gerdeen announced the decision to close the food shelf in an emotional speech during business hours. "Everyone was so kind and so sweet and supportive and sad," she told Sahan Journal.

After her speech, Gerdeen talked to a group of elderly women who gave her hugs. "One lady was talking about how hard it is to get resources to north Minneapolis, then we finally get things and they're taken away from us," she said. "That was hard to hear."

Lenora Caston, 73, has been going to Camden for the past three years and had just recently started volunteering there. "I was crying because I got to know everybody at the food shelf," Caston said. "It impacted me, because I'm a senior and I don't get food stamps."

Fourteen part-time employees are losing their jobs, including 12 youth employees and an adult volunteer who worked 24 hours per week. Lizbeth Flores, 17, a youth employee for three years, got a new job at a fast-food restaurant. Other workers were still struggling to find employment.

"I feel devastated," Flores said. "It's sad to know the connections I made with people. I'm not going to be able to see them."

She remembered once helping an elderly couple carry their groceries to their car and hearing them say they couldn't believe such a service existed. The woman started crying. "Bless you," she said to Flores.

"I want to emphasize how community-led it was," Flores said. "We listened to the opinions of the people in the community, and we tried our best to always accommodate those who came to our food shelf."

Camden Collective stocked culturally specific foods, such as rice for Latino families and halal meat for Muslim families, as well as plasticware, cleaning supplies and hygiene products.

Most of the staff and clientele have been Spanish speakers, and many speak only Spanish. A majority of the volunteers had recently immigrated to the United States, according to Gerdeen.

Camden Collective started in 2020 as a neighborhood support group that tutored kids. After the group received a sponsorship in 2021 from the Sanneh Foundation to deliver food, volunteers and staffers handed out 50 or so food boxes every week in the parking lot of Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis, which has become the food shelf's home.

The organization became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the fall of 2022, newly eligible for federal support from the Emergency Food Assistance Program. That's when the problems began, Gerdeen said.

After a long approval process, the IRS failed to list the group in a master file system until June 2023, causing Camden to miss out on several nonprofit perks. Gerdeen said she hasn't been told why, but she theorizes it may have been because the food shelf had changed its name.

The mistake led the IRS to reject the food shelf's tax filings, Gerdeen said. In addition, some filings were sent too early or too late; by the end of 2023, Camden Collective's tax-exempt status was revoked after three missed tax filings.

Gerdeen didn't find out about the revoked status until March, a peak time for nonprofits to apply for grant funding. She said she attempted to contact the IRS multiple times. Once she was on hold for 80 minutes, talked to someone for five minutes, and then was put on hold again for 20 minutes before the call dropped.

IRS officials declined to comment due to federal disclosure regulations.

"Whenever you're going to call the IRS, you need to have your whole entire afternoon clear, because you don't know how long it's going to take," Gerdeen said.

Eventually, Gerdeen was told to forward all of Camden's documents to the IRS. In the meantime, she contacted U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office, which made inquiries with the IRS on her behalf.

"It made me start to think that they weren't even reading our case or haven't even looked into what was going on," Gerdeen said of the IRS. "It went round and round in circles."

Camden Collective will still host its fall and winter festival this year, when it distributes free coats. Gerdeen said the nonprofit is also planning to launch a resource center with donations it has stockpiled to provide newly-arrived migrants with clothing, personal hygiene supplies and more.

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This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan's stories in your inbox.