About two months ago, Minneapolis opened the doors to a newly-built facility near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station that was supposed to be an answer to what had become Minnesota’s largest homeless encampment. The goal: Move everyone from the camp to the facility, known as a navigation center, for the winter, while case managers worked to find them permanent housing elsewhere.
But now, project leaders say, that pipeline to stable housing is not moving fast enough, and social workers are scrambling to help all the people who remain at the site in the limited time the navigation center is to remain open; under current agreements, it must close by May 31, when the property owner — the Red Lake Nation — plans to break ground on an affordable housing complex.
From the start, the center took in more people than what project leaders had designed it for. The three massive heated tents were designed to sleep 120 people, but because a larger group of people — totallying 162 — was at the homeless encampment when the navigation center opened, they made room for extra cots. As of this week, about 130 people still remain at the center.
“Ideally, we need to be moving, you know, 10 folks a week into housing at this point in order to get everybody housed by the time we close in June,” said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing, which is overseeing the site’s operations. “We’re not quite there yet.”
How the navigation center has evolved
The homeless encampment, near the Little Earth housing complex just north of East Phillips Park at Hiawatha and Cedar avenues, began as a landing spot for a single homeless family in spring 2018, but eventually grew to include some some 300 people. Most residents were Native American and represented a variety of tribes, and many struggled with drug addiction.
Their tents, belongings and garbage covered the narrow strip of land near Hiawatha Avenue much of last year. Government leaders paid frequent visits, promising swift action to find them better living spaces — while humanitarian workers, volunteers and law-enforcement officers provided support at the camp almost around the clock. Its energy changed with the passage of time, too, going from communal and positive in the beginning to bleak and violent by fall.
That was when the Minneapolis City Council officially agreed to build the city’s first navigation center, an idea that has been adopted in a handful of U.S. cities grappling with people sleeping outside. San Francisco built the first in spring 2015 as an alternative to traditional emergency shelters, which often have higher barriers for entry and typically do not serve as a centralized location for social services.
Minneapolis officials and neighbors clashed over a proposed site until Red Lake Nation offered up its property as a solution. The tribe is co-leading the navigation center’s housing efforts.
The navigation center was built in about 60 days, after which people at the camp began to pack up their belongings and move in. All together, the city of Minneapolis has dedicated up to $1.5 million for the center.
Now, with the center up and running, residents receive three meals a day and have showers and bathrooms and a range of social services available almost around the clock. Health professionals are on site to offer medical help, and a representative from Hennepin County frequently visit to assess people’s needs for drug addictions, including in-patient treatment. Also, Red Lake Nation is exploring the option of medically-assisted drug treatment at the center, according to Simpson Housing.
That is a departure from project leaders’ original stance against any alcohol or drug use in the gated center (with the caveat that staff would not turn someone away for being intoxicated). Against organizers’ wishes, however, residents are using illegal drugs in the facility. Project leaders are trying to keep users as safe as possible with new needles and naloxone, a drug that can fight the effects of opioids and prevent overdosing. One resident, Todd L. Weldon, 47, has died since the navigation center opened.
“Our interest is in keeping people safe, and sometimes it’s all relative,” said Simpson Housing’s Steve Horsfield. “So, getting people indoors into a safer environment was key. At the end of the day, there are choices that people are making … that are inherently unsafe, and we are not precluding people from housing for that reason.”
The mood of the navigation center has evolved, too. At first, the environment felt very chaotic, he said. There’s been tension between certain residents and how they handle possessions, for instance. According to city records, emergency responders, mostly police, were called to the shelter 88 times between its opening and mid-January. Staff has even kicked some residents out for violent and inappropriate behavior, Horsfield said, which he described as “very extreme” and a “detriment to other residents.”
But over weeks, social-service workers have made a point to ask people living at the center for their suggestions to improve their safety and comfort. Everyone seems more settled now, Horsfield said, even though some interpersonal issues remain. “To take 150-plus people and move them from an environment where they were sleeping outdoors and in sort of constant crisis, and then just bring them to a different facility — that doesn’t make all of the trauma experience go away,” Horsfield said.
No visitors — including reporters — are allowed inside the gated compound, matching the protocol of other homeless shelters in Hennepin County, he said. That is, in part, because the site is not equipped to do proper screenings of every new person.
Progress being made, but…
Months ago, Red Lake Nation partnered with Avivo, a Minneapolis non-profit that offers chemical and mental health service, to secure money from the state of Minnesota for supportive housing throughout the metro area. Dozens of people have moved into apartments or other living spaces because of that agreement, or they have found shelter with relatives, including 20 people who have recently left the navigation center, Horsfield said.
“Progress is being made, for sure, but … it’s not a lot of time,” before the center must close, said Margaret King, who the city of Minneapolis hired last year to coordinate the running of the navigation center. She helped build and manage a similar site in Seattle.
In Minneapolis, a group of employees from the American Indian Community Development Corporation and Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center are leading efforts to determine available housing outside the shelter. Meanwhile, case workers are on the ground, helping people determine next steps: what they need for better mental health, or to obtain “simple things like ID’s and all the other things that get in the way of getting housing,” Horsfield said.
“Everybody’s plan is different,” King said.
Despite the scramble for housing outside the center, King said she is impressed by how fast Minneapolis planned the facility; the level of coordination between different organizations and levels of government, and project leaders’ commitment to transition people from the outdoor camp to the center in a humane way.
To get the remaining people housed, Horsfield said he and project leaders are working to raise more awareness of the site. They are aiming to recreate the level of urgency government leaders and community members felt around the outdoor encampment — energy that got some 150 people into stable housing before the navigation center even opened, he said. Also, he hopes that momentum remains to solve the region’s bigger, pervasive problem that is causing homelessness: a lack of affordable housing.
“There are hundreds of people outside of the navigation center around the metro that are sleeping outside, sleeping on the trains and having to really scratch and claw for safe places to be,” Horsefield said. “We have a long way to go yet in this community about making sure that we’ve got appropriate, safe, sustainable housing solutions for everyone in our community. We are nowhere near that yet.”