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‘The emergency is now visible’: How the Hiawatha homeless encampment came to be. And what Minneapolis officials are trying to do about it.

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
About three months ago, a homeless family pitched a tent on the narrow strip of land near the Little Earth housing complex.

By the end of September, Minneapolis officials want to clear the large homeless encampment just north of East Phillips Park at Hiawatha and Cedar Avenues and start the process of connecting the residents there with housing and other services. But as the row of tents grows daily — becoming what is believed to be among the largest such sites ever in Minnesota — here are some of the biggest challenges officials will have to address to accomplish that:

The camp has become a landing spot

About three months ago, a homeless family pitched a tent on the narrow strip of land near the Little Earth housing complex. They found relief thanks to the area’s high visibility and sound wall; it seemed safer than sleeping in alleyways or near trails without much traffic or street lighting, and word of the location spread among other people sleeping outside.

Homeless people across the Twin Cities soon migrated to the Hiawatha encampment from all sorts of sleeping spots: Minnehaha Park, Lake Street alleys or trails near the Mississippi River, among others. For many reasons, sleeping outside in a group beats sleeping outside alone. Now a sprawl of more than 70 tents stretches along the west side of Hiawatha Avenue. It’s home to at least 120 people, including many children and several pets. Most of the people at the encampment are Native American and represent a variety of tribes.

The site’s status as a place of refuge grew after social-service workers set up portable toilets and washing stations, while volunteers ramped up their visits to pass out food and clean up trash around the tents.

For the Minneapolis Police Department’s homeless liaison, Sgt. Grant Snyder, the growth has given the settlement the feel of a small city. “And with that, it has brought city-sized problems,” he told City Council members at a committee meeting to discuss public safety last week. He pointed out issues ranging from violent crime to poor sanitation to young children at the camp being unequipped for school.

The camp is representative of a bigger problem

“When governments’ objectives historically have been to eliminate people by stealing culture, language, land, social infrastructure — this is the result,” said Robert Lilligren, head of the Native American Community Development Institute. The encampment represents 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, advocates said.

It also embodies a homelessness epidemic that goes beyond Minneapolis. Rents are rising as the metro area’s population grows and the pace at which it adds housing is moving too slowly. People 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 emergency is not the camp. The emergency has been going on for years,” John Tribbett, of St. Stephens Humans Services, told City Council members. “The emergency is now visible.”

Hiawatha homeless encampment

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Homeless people across the Twin Cities migrated to the Hiawatha encampment from all sorts of sleeping spots.

Amid the scramble to house everyone, one underlying fact is key: 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 are among the latter.

And though a head count at the Hiawatha encampment is easy, 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 initiates spot counts on random nights to try to get a sample of the region’s homeless population: The latest tally, in April, found that there were about 400 people without shelter, and a count roughly two weeks ago recorded more than 1,370 adults and children in emergency shelters. Most beds in the county’s shelter system fill up for the night by morning.

The site poses serious public health concerns

Standing in front of City Council members, one volunteer showed a picture of hundreds of used needles he and others picked up at the camp. And that was in just one cleaning spree.

Many people at the camp are addicted to heroin and methamphetamine. They’re shooting up in tents when law-enforcement officers are around, or out in the open when activity is quieter, residents have said. Dealers have pinpointed the site as a hotspot for business, and some residents fear for turf fights with the camp’s growing size. Meanwhile, volunteers with groups such as Natives Against Heroin are trying to keep people safe as possible by passing out kits with new needles and naloxone — a drug that can fight the effects of opioids and prevent overdosing. At least one person has overdosed so far, though no one has died, MPD’s Snyder said.

Beyond needles, the amount of human waste also creates a significant health risk, he said.

Hiawatha homeless encampment

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
A sprawl of more than 70 tents stretches along the west side of Hiawatha Avenue.

Health officials have so far heard reports of a drug-resistant bacterial infection known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, as well as hepatitis C, scabies and sexually transmitted diseases among residents. Also, Gretchen Musicant, Minneapolis’ commissioner of health, has noted the site’s ripe potential for a hepatitis A outbreak — an infection that plagued homeless camps in California last year — if they don’t take necessary steps soon. Officials may launch a new effort to vaccinate as many homeless people as possible across the county to prevent hepatitis A, she said.

With more people comes more danger

Snyder, who is spending most of his time at the camp, said the potential for violence is growing with the number of people joining the camp. Gunfire has erupted near the site at least once, though no one was injured. For now, residents are mostly handling disagreements among themselves, he said, but among the most alarming safety threats: groups “going from tent to tent looking for single women,” seemingly as part of a human trafficking operation, he said.

At least one resident, John Carlbom, expressed fear for the community’s safety with “gangs” and “pimps” hanging around, noting looming threats by predatory men against women. “It’s getting really bad now.”

Hiawatha homeless encampment

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
The Hiawatha homeless encampment is home to at least 120 people, including many children and several pets. Most of the people at the encampment are Native American and represent a variety of tribes.

At one point, Snyder pitched a tent to get a better sense of conditions and provide surveillance throughout the night. Many residents know him by name. The police department has also set up a couple of mobile video cameras and boosted its patrols in the area.

Residents don’t feel heard

Several people who live at Hiawatha — an activist, a lifelong member of the neighborhood and a man who’s been at the site since its early days — want to make it known: Life at the camp is getting worse.

Gretchen Nickence, who’s advocated at the state Capitol on behalf of homeless people before, was sleeping with a group along a bike trail in Minneapolis recently when she said police officers told them to migrate to the Hiawatha camp. Addressing City Council members at the meeting last week, she called for better collaboration and use of the city’s new and existing housing to help homeless people. Every homeless person in Minneapolis is wondering: “Why isn’t there any help?” she said.

Meanwhile, Caryn Pacheco, who has always lived in the neighborhood and now sleeps at the camp, told council members that residents are exhausted by sharing their struggles with officials, again and again, when nothing seems to come of the conversations. It feels like the city is only talking about the camp, not with it, she continued. “You can’t keep us out of the loop. In the meantime, we will decide our own leadership and we will take care of things as we see them.”

Clearing the camp is just the beginning

Agencies and nonprofits from the city, county and state are part of the massive effort to connect the camp’s residents with shelter and other services before fall’s cold temperatures move in. Among their first steps: Make everyone in tents fill out surveys with their housing needs. That process is under way. A city spokesman didn’t respond to a request for a funding breakdown of Minneapolis’ response so far.

Hiawatha homeless encampment

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Potable water and a portable toilet shown at the Hiawatha homeless encampment.

Meanwhile, the city is looking for long-term solutions to its growing homeless population and lack of accessible housing for low-income residents. Among officials’ steps so far: They want to make it easier for property owners to turn existing space into affordable housing and, in some cases, encourage landlords to eliminate certain criteria to rent, such as policies preventing people with criminal or eviction histories.

The council’s committee for housing issues will highlight those types of hurdles and talk about the Hiawatha encampment on Sept. 12. “Just finding a bed is not going to solve this issue,” city coordinator Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/27/2018 - 12:04 pm.

    Refugee camps

    I have a friend who works for the State of California and has been dealing the huge camps there, one of her World Health Organization/Dr’s Without Borders colleagues recently visited their tent cities and declared that conditions there are worse than those she’s seen in most refugee camps worldwide.

    Any discussion about the affordable housing crises needs to begin at these camps. These ARE refugee camps. These people are economic refugees. This is NOT a new problem, these people have been out there for decades, and no one had done anything remotely effective to resolve this issue. If these people were in tents because of a forest fire, or a flood, the governor would have declared a state of emergency years ago. No governor anywhere in the country has looked at these camps and even considered declaring a state of emergency. We have thousands of square feet of empty space all over the city. If nothing else, we have publicly financed stadiums and arena’s sitting around empty all night every night.

    From short term safety to long terms treatment and housing we have the resources to deal with this… we’re just not doing it. The true measure of any civilization isn’t how well off it’s wealthiest and most powerful are… it’s how well off the poorest and weakest are. This an unforgivable fail.

  2. Submitted by Chris Lynch on 08/27/2018 - 01:45 pm.

    Let’s include the residents in finding a solution.

    I’m all for solving this, but everything seems to be about what the city or some other level of government or charitable organization is going to do, or should do. We’ll probably be a lot more successful in making progress when individuals impacted suggest what THEY are going to do too. And there probably are several to many things they would be willing to do if the helping hands are really out this time around. It seems if we and they want real change, we ought to attempt, on an ongoing basis perhaps and of course, to engage and empower those who need the help to help themselves too, to the degree that they can, in doing new behaviors or changing old habits perhaps that have left them out in the cold, so to speak, at this point in time.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/27/2018 - 08:35 pm.

      Helping yourself

      The article indicates that a lot of these people are heroin and meth users. I’m not sure that self-help is going to fix things for them.

      • Submitted by Rachelle Berven on 09/13/2018 - 01:51 pm.

        I currently reside in another State…I was born and raised in MN. What we are doing here in Denver,CO.; The authorities are currently looking into a empty warehouse in which that could turn into a shelter…Also, there is a Drug/alcohol rehab. called the Fort…Many former homeless are currently living in this rehab. and getting help for their disease..Also the Fort offers job training and help with looking for a job..all of this cost the city a lot of money, ( Half a million dollars) but will MPLS. have this kind of money?

    • Submitted by Ole Johnson on 08/28/2018 - 07:11 am.

      Start with trash

      Maybe I’d be more sympathetic to the idea of the residents having more say in how the camp is run if they would pick up their own trash. The article says that the trash is being picked up by outside volunteers.

    • Submitted by Michelle Gross on 08/30/2018 - 05:55 pm.

      Absolutely right. So many efforts around homelessness have been led by highly paid executive-types and their poverty pimp allies and they inevitably fail to make a dent in the problem. The 10 year, $10 million dollar Heading Home Hennepin project is a prime example. At the end of that fiasco there were more homeless and less resources than when they started. The old saying “nothing for me or about me without me” applies here.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/27/2018 - 03:00 pm.

    When I came upon…

    the camp a couple of weekends ago my first cynical reaction was well we are now the big city we always wanted to be. In reality the inequity of displacement and dislocation of capitalism has hit my city in a very visible manner. This is what happens when so very very few people determines the fate of most people on earth. This is just one manifestation of that. The camp will be cleaned up before big football starts maybe. There is a city like this only much much bigger within a block of where the Padres play in San Diego. The locals seemed to be inured over what should have people in tears. After the initial media attention I suspect Minneapolis will be the same. And then like everywhere start blaming the victims for the pain others bring.

  4. Submitted by Joe Smith on 08/27/2018 - 06:12 pm.

    Low income housing

    is not the answer or issue. The majority of homeless street people are either mentally ill or drug addicted. Low income housing will not help with that. The folks who are neither addicted or mentally ill need jobs, not a Government handout. So many different private and Govt agencies have tried to help with this problem with very little success. They need professional help not low income housing.

    • Submitted by Michelle Gross on 08/30/2018 - 06:13 pm.

      News flash–a good many have jobs but the pay isn’t enough to secure housing, especially when the city requires landlords to do background checks on potential tenants (the costs of which are passed on as application fees), blocks renting to people with past UDs or criminal offenses, etc. Further, the housing shortage has driven rents in the Twin Cities to rates far out of proportion with the mean income levels of residents.

      Many people in this community are a few paychecks from being homeless themselves. Hope you never experience it but if you do, I hope you find others to be far more empathetic than you are.

  5. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 08/27/2018 - 08:39 pm.

    state gov’t should pony up

    This is a state-wide problem and the state government should pay to help these people.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/28/2018 - 11:43 am.

      The “state” is helping

      The Minnesota Dept. of Heath, and the Country are contributing personnel and resources. MNDOT is also involved since the camp is actually sitting on MNDOT land.

  6. Submitted by Frederick Hippchen on 08/28/2018 - 12:14 am.


    I will never forget the time Walt Dziedzic had a proposal come before the City Council to require those agencies and faith communities that served free meals to build “waiting rooms” for the people waiting to be fed. This was so the public wouldn’t see them. If it wasn’t for the fact that news travelled to faith communities and the Council chamber was packed with lay and clergy, the Council would have passed the bill. A female pastor from Hennepin UMC spoke resolutely and eloquently for all of us. Dziedzic did the only honorable thing some Council Members could do . . .he threw an aide under the bus, saying he himself did not draft the resolution. Not to mention the scores of mentally ill turned loose on the citizens promise to integrate them into residential neighborhoods.

    Until of course, they were turned loose, and found the worms turned into NIMBYs. We won’t even talk about the destruction of the Block E infrastructure. This camp has a long history of coming to be. Mean-apolis has always been just as it is now.

    The last City Council saw fit to build $1bn stadiums, cave into developers and enjoyed the perks of being feted/bribed by them, threw tantrums for plastic bags, bike lanes, organized a chaotic rennovation of Nicollet Mall, fought with the Chief of Police, and assorted other BS that neglected the pending housing crisis, and of course part of that is the camp of the homeless who have always been with us.

    As Lily Tomlin said, “One can never be cynical enough.” What a tragedy for these people struggling with merely existing, to have landed in a mean city where “progress” is only for those who can afford to isolate themselves in plush lifestyle enclaves. While social service agencies as pragmatic progressives struggle to provide for unmet human needs . . . the “irresponsible progressives” observe the vulnerable, poor, and chronically ill over the rim of a chilled glass of fine Chardonnay and offer “thoughts and prayers”.

  7. Submitted by Michelle Gross on 08/30/2018 - 06:03 pm.

    A friend who is homeless and is very familiar with encampments around the city (there are many) has told me that cops are raiding the other encampments based on anti-camping laws and sending people to Hiawatha. Seems like the city wants homeless folks altogether, where they can keep an eye on them…or something. Most of these smaller encampments are democratically run and many have firm rules and address issues internally. The city should leave these folks alone.

  8. Submitted by Dan Czarnecki on 09/04/2018 - 10:06 am.

    Just disgusting. This has grown to be such an eyesore now it’s not even funny. We have really reached a new low…

    Those that are homeless deserve an actual shelter to live in because a tent on the side of the road is far from a sustainable one. Hopefully the city can do what they can to get a grip on this and provide actual shelter for those that are less fortunate because I for one don’t want to look off the side of Hiawatha/55 and continue to see this ever so giant homeless camping site.

  9. Submitted by Britne engelking on 09/20/2018 - 05:23 pm.

    Unlike California, in Minnesota it is not always sunny and warm. In fact it’s almost October, if that means anything. Does anyone know if there are infants and young children at the camp? Can we please help the families with young children first. It’s cold out right now and raining, I know two families that would take in smaller families with children. Also people can contact churches in their areas to see what their churches and community can do. The temperatures drop fast, I am hoping there are not infants crying out in the rain in my state, we are better than that… this group has evolved from something many of us didn’t even know was even a problem. Please respond if you know anything about infants or children at the “shelter” “camp” so I can contact others about resolving the crisis of homelessness in MN. Temperature…We need realistic plans and action and we have days to do this.

  10. Submitted by James Burley on 10/28/2018 - 11:50 am.

    I am just overwhelmed by the efforts of the people of Minneapolis who are sincerely striving to help those in need. I came here in 1988 a american indian alcoholic and have found this state to offer nothing but helping hands up. I will soon be celebrating 30 years drug and alcohol free and run a small business with my own house and rental property. I could only of done it in MN. Someone in the community is concerned enough to help every family down there into housing – someone put fresh water and portable toilets down there – Excellent job Minneapolis!!! This is the BEST state in US!

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