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Navigation center begins welcoming people from Hiawatha Ave. tent encampment

Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong said humanitarian workers with tribes are going around the campsite on Hiawatha to tell people about their new living option nearby.

It’s official: Minneapolis this week joined just a handful of U.S. cities that have opened emergency government-sponsored centers to offer social services and shelter to a growing number of people who are sleeping outside.

Minneapolis’ new site, dubbed a navigation center, is on Cedar Avenue near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station and aims to temporarily house up to 120 people who are currently living in tents on the strip of land alongside Hiawatha Avenue nearby. Its opening marks a milestone in officials’ scramble over months to find indoor shelter for them.

Here are takeaways from the opening of the center which is three massive, heated tents with beds and trailers for showers and dining ranging from how its residents are feeling to what officials have planned next for them:


At least one person cried in happiness on arrival at the new center.

Since the Hiawatha camp reached its peak size of some 300 people months ago, dozens of people have left either to sleep outside somewhere else in the Twin Cities metro or move into stable housing.

Red Lake Nation, which is co-leading the housing effort and owns the land on which the navigation center sits, helped 62 former camp residents find permanent homes since the camp’s emergence earlier this year, tribal leaders said. Hennepin County, meanwhile, connected another 80 people with apartments or other housing, according to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

That leaves several dozen people still at the homeless site on Hiawatha, all of whom tribal and city officials want moved to the navigation center sometime soon. They started the transition this week, helping people pack up outside and set up their new spaces inside the heated tents.

Marian Wright, of the Minneapolis nonprofit Simpson Housing, is among workers helping people with the move.

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Navigation centers give people a place to sleep with few restrictions, and they can learn how to overcome housing, employment, addiction and other health issues from the center’s on-site staff.
“I was really worried that people were going to be a little traumatized by leaving where they’d been living for the last six months or longer. But people were just happy to see a bed and have a warm space, and then they found out about all the other things that we’re offering here. I had somebody who cried when we told her about the services that we’re offering in the service trailer,” she said. “They’re happy to be able to take a shower and just to be warm and have a safe place.”

Staff at the center plan to provide residents three meals a day, as well as tools to manage chemical dependency, including Suboxone, and mental-health services. They prohibit alcohol or drug use at the center, though they will not turn someone away for being intoxicated, Simpson Housing Executive Director Steve Horsfield said. The property has a secure fence.

The mayor is hesitant to set a deadline for moving everyone from the camp.

Standing inside one of the new heated tents at the navigation center Thursday, Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong said humanitarian workers with tribes are going around the campsite on Hiawatha to tell people about their new living option nearby.


Most people are open to the idea of the navigation center, and “even the ones that are resistant, I think we’re changing that their mentalities on it,” Strong said. “We’re intent on getting them over here.”

That resistance, following failed promises by the mayor earlier this year to move folks by September, is among reasons officials are keeping their timeframe for moving everyone loose.

“This is our first time going through this,” Frey said. “We don’t know exactly how long it takes to transition both people, as well as their belongings … and so we’re going through the process right now. We will be remediating; we’re going to be working with our team and the tribes to help make it happen. But the honest answer is, we just don’t know because this transition, as well as the setup of this navigation center itself, has come together so quickly.”

Crews built the tents in about 60 days, after a contentious debate among Minneapolis City Council members and some members of the community over its location. Red Lake Nation offered up its site as a solution to the fight, and now the navigation center can operate there until May 2019. At that point, the tribe plans to build an affordable housing complex on the property.

Total, the city of Minneapolis spent $1.5 million on the temporary navigation center.

Project leaders are planning a cleanup of the Hiawatha tent site.

Crews will eventually clean the encampment to get rid of the garbage and left-behind belongings once everyone moves to the navigation center, said Strong, of Red Lake Nation.

“Our goal is to, as we move people, to clean it up, to bring it back to, you know, what it is a hill, let’s stop seeing this as a permanent place for people. It’s unsafe,” he said.

Cities with pervasive homelessness, such as Seattle and San Francisco, are under similar spotlight for how they approach — and clear — encampments in their parks, alongside freeways and under bridges. Officials have often done sweeps of the areas without giving the people living there notice or helping them find new places to go.


In Minneapolis, Mayor Frey emphasized a “housing-first approach” that aims to set a precedent for places elsewhere by working closely with people living at the Hiawatha camp to find shelter that suits their specific needs. Officials hope to eventually connect all residents with some kind of housing over the next several months.

For some cities, ‘temporary’ navigation centers became long-term.

With no place to go, people have built some 274 homeless encampments like Hiawatha in cities across the country, national surveys show. And in response, officials have created navigation centers, similar to the one in Minneapolis, that began as temporary solutions but eventually evolved into significant pieces of the cities’ efforts to help their poorest residents.

San Francisco was the first U.S. city to build a navigation center, in spring 2015, to provide an alternative to traditional emergency shelters, since they often have higher barriers for entry. Navigation centers give people a place to sleep with few restrictions, and they can learn how to overcome housing, employment, addiction and other health issues from the center’s on-site staff. 

Later, Seattle opened its first navigation center, with 75 beds in a former office building. Case managers are assigned to each resident, aiming to provide individualized help for finding stable housing and health treatment. But, as in San Francisco, demand has outweighed available living options somewhere else; folks are staying at the centers longer than officials anticipated. Navigation centers in both Seattle and San Francisco remain open, though officials have goals of closing them at some point to turn the sites into something else (often affordable housing).

“Creating these environments may make it look and feel like the community is taking action to end homelessness on the surface — but, by themselves, they have little impact on reducing homelessness,” a September staff report for the Minneapolis council said. “They can prove difficult to close, especially if there are not adequate plans and resources” to help people move on.

Red Lake Nation offered up its site as a solution to the fight, and now the navigation center can operate there until May 2019.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Red Lake Nation offered up its site as a solution to the fight, and now the navigation center can operate there until May 2019.
To address its homeless crisis, San Diego paid about $6.5 million for three massive tents with bunk beds, showers and social services, similar to the center in Minneapolis. Yet just 10 percent of people who have left San Diego’s tents have moved into permanent homes, compared to a goal of 65 percent, estimates show.

Though institutional failures are partly responsible for the bottleneck, other factors also are at play. Some people may struggle to fill out housing applications fast when their main focus is sobriety, for instance. Or they don’t have government-issued IDs required for certain subsidized housing, and they need to track down specific documents over weeks or months to get them.

The camp and now the navigation center are representative of larger problems.

The emergency effort to house people embodies epidemics that extend regionwide. Rents are rising as the Twin Cities’ population grows and the pace at which it adds housing is moving too slowly. That widens the housing gap, leaving more people than before in unstable living situations.

And people of color are more likely to have bad housing circumstances than white Minnesotans. Most of the people who passed through the Hiawatha encampment, either to hangout or live, were Native American; they are homeless at 17 times the rate of the state’s white residents, research has shown.

“It’s been too long that the Native people have been forgotten,” Strong said. “For decades, my relatives have been on the streets ignored, under bridges and really in harsh conditions, living a really hard life. And many people recognize this is the result of decades, centuries of trauma, historical of trauma and trauma perpetrated by the federal government.”

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