Allen Touche stood underneath the apartment complex, just off the Franklin Avenue light-rail station, and pointed to the room he hoped to live in one day.
He knows the apartments well. He helped build them. A carpenter by trade, he framed the doors and walls, installed the cabinets and ran supplies up and down its six floors. The red, black and white complex will open in several weeks.
"I put my blood, sweat and tears into this place," he said. "My own physical labor built this building."
For Touche, 48, this apartment represents something he hasn't had most of his adult life: stability.
He has been homeless over the last few years, hopping from couch to couch, sleeping in his car, nesting underneath a bush. This summer, he slept in a tent across from the apartments he was building, a site known as the Wall of Forgotten Natives.
Homelessness in Minneapolis was perhaps never as visible as it was this year. The financial hardship of the coronavirus pandemic combined with the social upheaval following George Floyd's death brought hundreds out into the light to pitch tents in parks and vacant lots.
The crisis has long been pervasive among Native Americans; though they are just 1% of the state's population, 12% of homeless Minnesotans identified as Native American, according to a 2018 study by Wilder Research.
Despite a personal past marred by troubles and a year defined by losses, Touche has found people who have helped him get one step closer to the stability he is searching for. He seeks to return the favor any way he can.
"When we sit down and put good, positive forces out into the world, good, positive forces come back," he said. "I've had some bad things happen to me. But you know what? I've had many more good things happen to me."
Touche is lean and muscular, his tall figure topped with short dark hair. His nose is slightly askew and he walks with a limp, injuries from what he said was a brutal assault by a group of men last year.
A full-blooded Lakota member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, Touche entered foster care at birth.
He was raised by the family of the nurse who helped deliver him. He attended high school in Minot, N.D., went to church on Sundays and cheered for his grandfather's favorite teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Lakers, which he supports to this day.
"They raised me," said Touche, his voice low and raspy. "And even though I've lived a blessed life ... I myself have made very wrong decisions, very bad choices in my life."
After high school, Touche's life was engulfed by alcohol.
"I allowed my alcoholism to get in the way of real change, real progress," he said. "Instead of going out and doing the right thing and working for a living, I decided it's better to sit there and write bad checks and to burglarize places to make money to support my alcoholism."
He became sober in 2008 and has stayed so for 12½ years, he said. He fit his life into a single suitcase and lived across the country, including in Colorado, Georgia, California and Ohio.
Always scouting for jobs
When he came to Minneapolis in 2017, he was homeless.
He slept on a bench on the light-rail stop next to U.S. Bank Stadium, tying his backpack to his arm and using the Wi-Fi from the stadium.
Nick Mattei, a 30-year-old seminary student, met Touche while doing outreach work at the stadium during the X Games. Touche shared stories from his life, and Mattei's church later paid for his bus ticket to Grand Portage, Minn., for a job.
Mattei formed a special connection with Touche and was encouraged by how he said he sought to protect others on the street despite his own circumstances.
"It can kind of be a dog-eat-dog world out there," Mattei said. "There's people that are just trying to survive, and so they'll do whatever they need to. But Allen's out there trying to really help people, even though he himself needs help."
Touche was constantly looking for work and bouncing between jobs once he returned to Minneapolis.
He had heard about the new housing project next to the Wall of Forgotten Natives, a sprawling homeless encampment where hundreds of residents lived in 2018. The apartments — named Mino-bimaadiziwin, Ojibwe for "the good life" — would be low-rent targeted specifically to Native Americans.
Touche didn't just want to live there — he wanted to work there.
He visited the project site several times looking for a job. The project superintendent, Conrad Hoag, who was also from North Dakota, brought him on board. They paid for his induction fees into the carpenters union and drove him to get the testing he needed to start working.
"He's a pretty happy-go-lucky guy. He's got a really good attitude," Hoag said. "He has talents, he has the ability to work and ability to show up. And I think he was pretty consistent."
Touche still struggled to find a place to live. He stayed at the Wall of Forgotten Natives with other campers in September. The homeless outreach nonprofit ZACAH then booked him hotel rooms in Bloomington.
Summer of losses
In the meantime, he endured personal losses. His grandmother died in August. A few days later, his mother and father were admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 and pneumonia.
His mother, Gail Strandberg, died Sept. 20. She willed him a small, black Bible, taped up from the wear.
"How could you sleep in an environment where you're homeless? How could you stay sober in an environment when you're homeless?" Touche asked from the lobby of his hotel in October, holding the Bible in his hand. "This is how I was able to do that."
Touche found a room in November, in a sober house in South St. Paul. ZACAH helped pay his first month's rent and security deposit.
The house was newly renovated, with positive and religious messages decorating the walls. Touche watches TV in the living room, washes his clothes in the basement and takes long showers upstairs.
"I've never had a more feeling of security than I do right now," he said from the living room chair. "Just to have the security of knowing that I can just sit here and do nothing. That is up to me."
He broke down. "I wish my mom was here to see this."
Touche has completed his work at the Mino-bimaadiziwin apartments. He is working on and off and has struggled to save up money to pay for rent and his car, which was impounded more than a month ago.
He has spent recent weekends giving out meals in Minneapolis. On a Saturday in late November, he suited up in his Carhartt coveralls and hoodie and climbed on the bus toward the city.
He joined a group handing out Thanksgiving meals at a makeshift line outside a shuttered Speedway gas station in the Phillips neighborhood. He fixed a plate and gave it to a woman he had seen slumped on an apartment stoop on the way.
"I just want you know that I care about you because I've been where you're at," he told her.
Touche speaks about the way society has undermined Native Americans, leaving them to become dependent on handouts and subsidies. It has kept them down, he said, and prevented them from raising each other up.
"I know the struggle firsthand," he said. "But at the same time, I'm willing to persevere."
In November, Touche was unsure whether he would move into the new apartments because his rent at the sober house was cheaper.
When he stood next to the apartments on that Saturday afternoon, his tone was different.
"I'm just so thankful to be a part of this," Touche said from the building's playground. "This is going to be my home."
Miguel Otárola • 520-256-0837