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Minneapolis homeless navigation center closes, even as need remains acute

Twin Cities officials are already anticipating the reappearance of  homeless encampments this summer.

navigation center
With the closing of the navigation center, officials are anticipating the reappearance of conspicuous signs of homelessness across the Twin Cities metro area this summer.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

On Monday, officials in Minneapolis capped a yearlong effort to clear the state’s biggest homeless encampment by closing the temporary emergency shelter on Cedar Avenue, where they had forced residents of the camp to move roughly five months ago.

Dubbed a navigation center, it was the city’s first government-sponsored center with both social services and beds, and it added momentum to debates over how, and to what extent, government agencies should help the city’s poorest residents gain access to housing.

The center’s closure marks a milestone in the discussion, though officials are anticipating the reappearance of conspicuous signs of homelessness across the Twin Cities metro area this summer. Several former residents of the Hiawatha camp said they are preparing to keep living outside, and Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, who represents parts of Minneapolis, said she’s already seen new tents in various locations across her District 4.

“We’re not taking a victory lap on the topic of homelessness now,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said last week. “We’ve got a lot of hard work to do.”

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Meanwhile, one of the navigation center’s operators and the owner of the property where the center stood, the Red Lake Nation, is considering building another one-stop location with health services and emergency cots in Minneapolis, according to Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki.

“I never thought would be like this,” he said. “There’s still people out there.”

Need remains

In mid-December, Minneapolis opened the doors to the newly built navigation center near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station that was supposed to be an answer to public health and safety problems at the encampment along Hiawatha Avenue. The goal was to move everyone from the camp to the facility — three massive, heated tents with beds and trailers for showers and dining — for the winter, while case managers worked to find them permanent housing elsewhere.

Moe Garcia and Tanya Jack
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Married couple Tanya Jack and Moe Garcia, who were among the first people to establish the Hiawatha encampment last year, said they wish they could’ve stayed sleeping outside because it felt safer than the navigation center.
From the start, the navigation center took in more people than what project leaders had designed it for. The tents were designed to sleep 120 people, but because a larger group — a total of 176 people — needed space at the navigation center, shelter staff made room for extra cots. Staff provided meals as well as tools to manage chemical dependency and around-the-clock mental-health services. In total, the city of Minneapolis said government agencies spent more than $3.2 million in capital and operational costs on the site.

Some of the residents had a positive experience. One man, for example, had been homeless for 15 years and told the center’s staff initially that he was not optimistic anything would change. But now he lives in his own apartment.

Case workers moved about 100 of the center’s residents into stable housing, including homes of family or friends, or health treatment, according to Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing, which oversaw the site’s operations.

But others had less positive outcomes. According to city records, police were called to the site more than 480 times since its opening, 911 calls that resulted in some residents going to jail. Also, staff kicked some residents out for violent and inappropriate behavior; some people left voluntarily to live on the streets again, and two residents died of drug overdoses.

Married couple Moe Garcia and Tanya Jack, who were among the first people to establish the Hiawatha encampment last year, said they wish they could’ve stayed sleeping outside because it felt safer than the navigation center.

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“The navigation center was never what it was meant to be sounded like,” Garcia said. “Basically, they were trying to clean up the streets; do the city a favor. What they said they were going to try to do try and help out their community. … Now they gave us a deadline and the deadline is just pushing everyone over to a different place.”

On Monday, the couple and another man were preparing a makeshift yard sale of their belongings on a narrow strip of land along Cedar Avenue just a few yards away from the emergency shelter. By selling the items, ranging from computer software and furniture, they said they were hoping to raise money for their next move: either living in subsidized housing — which is what social workers want for them or helping build another homeless encampment nearby.

Officials are aware of plans for another tent settlement this year and are working on a plan for responding to it.

As of last weekend, 25 people remained at the navigation center and were packing up their belongings to move. On Monday afternoon, a few could be seen hauling their things into vehicles parked outside the gated facility, while staff began clearing cots and trash from the tents as preparation for tearing them down. (Staff prohibited all visitors, including media, inside the navigation center, citing residents’ privacy.)

With the center closing, Horsfield said all remaining residents were offered emergency beds at shelters elsewhere in the metro. “We hope they take us up on that offer,” he said.

How the Minneapolis center was different from other cities’

The deadline for the closure of the navigation center came at the behest of the property owner, the Red Lake Nation, so the tribe can move forward with plans to build a 109-unit affordable housing complex there. The site, expected to open next year, will also serve as a new headquarters for the tribe, Seki said.

On Monday, he and other project leaders gathered at the headquarters of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency in St. Paul to mark the navigation center’s closure and highlight the number of people who found stable housing through it.

Mayor Jacob Frey
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Mayor Jacob Frey, with other Minneapolis leaders, tribal officials and Hennepin County authorities, speaking at the closing of the navigation center.
Few U.S. cities have met deadlines for closing similar navigation centers since San Francisco opened the first one in 2015. As in Minneapolis, the facilities began as a temporary solution to address homelessness but eventually evolved into significant pieces of the cities’ efforts to help their poorest residents.

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But leaders of Minneapolis’ navigation center said their partnerships, specifically between the native community and local government, made their effort different from those elsewhere. They said they shared the same goals and kept each other updated at every step of the way. “What you don’t see behind the scenes is that so many providers with Simpson, with Hennepin County and other folks, we went there everyday,” said Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, Minneapolis’ city coordinator. “There was every effort made to connect people somewhere else, and people saw it as genuine.”

Until the Twin Cities metro increases its supply of affordable housing, shelters with social services and emergency beds remain the best tool to manage safety and health issues of long-term homelessness, according to Horsfield. Even so, he told project leaders in April that Simpson Housing will not help build another navigation center, citing the space’s design challenges, should the need present itself in the future.

Red Lake Nation looks at building new shelter

According to advocates, the encampment represented some of the city’s biggest social problems: Too many people don’t have access to culturally appropriate or affordable housing, drug treatment centers or mental-health counseling. Citing encampments’ public safety and health issues, officials are worried that encampments like Hiawatha will become more commonplace in the Twin Cities over time, as they are in cities with extreme housing unaffordability on the West Coast.

The scramble to house everyone also underlined the fact that homelessness takes many forms. Some people are precariously housed, meaning they’re just one paycheck from homelessness. Others are couch-surfing or sleeping in vehicles. And then there are those who are “chronically homeless,” or dealing with long-term homelessness and often using emergency shelters or sleeping outside. People at the Hiawatha camp were among the latter.

And though figuring out head count at the Hiawatha camp and the navigation center was straightforward, tallying all of the region’s homeless people is not. Most chronically homeless people are constantly on the move, going from site to site with pushes from law-enforcement or park authorities. That makes it hard for nonprofits or government agencies to track them.

Hennepin County conducts spot counts on random nights to try to get a sample of the region’s homeless population, and the latest tally, done in October 2018, found that there were 4,072 people without shelter, more than half of whom were in emergency shelters. Most beds in the county’s shelter system fill up for the night by morning.

Red Lake Nation Chairman Seki, who visited the Hiawatha encampment on two occasions last year, felt the navigation center was a safer alternative to the “chaos” of the tent camp. He said Red Lake Nation is in the process of studying if it can build a similar emergency shelter in the future. The tribe has a Minneapolis location in mind for such a site and it is exploring its funding options as well as the possibility of purchasing tent frames used at the Cedar Avenue center.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials say they are convening regularly to form a regional plan for responding to future tent encampments. They said they know the current shelter system presents barriers for many people, though they feel large-scale homeless camps are unsafe. Frey said it is an “all hands on deck effort” and that they are committed to helping every homeless person.

“There are lessons we can learn from this experience so that when we come up with new solutions, both internally in our agencies and as we partner outward, they will have even better, greater effect,” said Patina Park, the former chair of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors. “We’re not going to solve a problem that’s literally 100s of years in its design. But we are making excellent steps now to come up with true solutions with everyone at the table.”