Updated Sept. 27, 11:25 a.m. | Posted Sept. 26, 3:45 p.m
The Minneapolis City Council on Wednesday signed off on a plan that would relocate a growing homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue to property nearby owned by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
Tribal leaders on Friday offered the land just south of the Franklin Avenue light rail station to use as a "navigation center" after the council delayed a decision on two other possible sites. The site would shelter people in the camp through winter while more permanent housing is found.
The unanimous City Council vote offers a step forward in solving what's become an increasingly troublesome problem for the city.
"Today, I'm very hopeful. You see governments coming together, tribes, local units of government, community leaders. And it's a powerful thing," said Sam Strong, the Red Lake tribal secretary. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done, but people are finally looking at the issue."
Navigations centers have popped up in other cities facing intense housing shortages like San Francisco and Seattle, but this would be a first for the Twin Cities.
It's different from traditional shelters in that it provides bare-bones, easy-to-access shelter where people can go as a starting point to find more stable housing.
What the city and tribal leaders are considering now are Federal Emergency Management Agency-style trailers which can each fit 54 beds. There is not much privacy but it offers a safer alternative to a tent along a highway, especially in winter.
About 160 tents are currently lined for about two blocks next to a concrete sound barrier along Hiawatha Avenue that camp residents call the "wall of forgotten natives" because many of the people living there are American Indian. The camp includes families with children.
It's been growing steadily over the summer and more people continue to move in. The city says they hope to have a navigation center open by early December, if not sooner.
"We heard some optimism about having it ready sooner and we will do everything we can to have it ready sooner," said David Frank, the city's director of community planning and economic development.
The site offered by the Red Lake Nation is the former home of Amble's Machinery and Hardware, which it bought in 2016 for $1.73 million with the intent to build a six-story, 109-unit apartment building for low-income people.
The buildings currently on the site would need to be demolished and then environmental remediation done before it could be inhabited. They intend to break ground next summer, which means the navigation center would need to be moved or deconstructed completely by then.
The city estimates it would cost about $2 million to $2.5 million to accommodate about 150 people. That does not include the cost of demolition, environmental clean-up, or providing services at the navigation center.
About 300 people are estimated to be living in tents now, which means the navigation center likely won't be able to accomodate everyone at the encampment.
James Cross, founder of the outreach group Natives Against Heroin, says the pace of people moving to the encampment has not slowed. While many at the camp are looking forward to the navigation center according to Cross, he said there are some who will not go.
As of Sept. 11, only a few families had moved into more permanent housing from the camp, according to data provided by the city.
On Wednesday, Jennifer DeCubellis, Hennepin County's deputy administrator of health and human services, told council members she didn't know how many people from the camp have found housing but that 60 have been "assessed and approved," up from 30 people two weeks ago.
Cathy ten Broeke, the state's point person on ending homelessness, told council members prior to the vote Wednesday that the state doesn't have the housing available to meet the camp's needs.
Part of the challenge is that some people choose not to seek shelter if it requires separation from partners or family members, abandoning pets, or being sober.
DeCubellis said on Wednesday that the encampment shows the shelter system clearly isn't working for everyone and the county has taken steps to lower barriers to accessing shelter.
In the meantime, non-profit groups and tribal leaders have stepped up efforts to provide food and medical care.
Mike Goze, vice chair of Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, said the group has provided 120 lunches a day at the camp, put in three showers, provided haircuts, and created a services center for housing and treatment referrals.
In regards to finding shelter for people at the camp, he said leaders need to take a different approach than they have in the past.
"When we look at our current shelter situation, that's not what's going to serve this population," Goze said. "When I look at the camps, I see people's whole lives within the tent . . . and so as we look forward, we have to understand we're in new territory."
Already, two people have died at the camp. That includes Wade Redmond, who died of a drug overdose earlier this month.
Redmond's mother, LaDonna Redmond, has been a presence at the camp and city council meetings. She's advocated the city adopt harm reduction strategies for drug users at the encampment to prevent future overdoses.
"I've been talking with people about what could have prevented his death, and I found out lots and lots of things, but the main thing that could have prevented his death was a harm reduction strategy . . . and it seems that strategy is still missing," Redmond said. "I'm very very glad that Red Lake has stepped up and offered a site, and yet we know that is just a first step."
Redmond, who is black, has urged leaders to keep in mind that the encampment includes a diverse group of people.
"All of our strategies have to be inclusive of every population. We do stand on native land, but we also stand on the backs of Africans, who have built this country," Redmond said.
While the navigation center plan offers a path forward, many questions remain unanswered, including what it would look like and how to pay for it.
It's also unclear what rules a navigation center would have or how they would be enforced. Red Lake officials made it clear the tribe does not want to manage the site and asked the city hire a firm with expertise to manage the navigation center.
There are also concerns from tribal leaders about the proposed FEMA-style trailers, including Leech Lake Tribal Chair Faron Jackson Sr.
"The main thing I'd like to see is that they can withstand the Minnesota winter, and keep in mind that it's not going to be a permanent solution. It's a temporary solution," Jackson said.
"If nothing else comes of this than this temporary campsite then it's going to be an ongoing issue," he added, "so we hope it leads to some more permanent, affordable housing."
For the mostly native residents of the encampment, Jackson said they have been neglected by the federal government.
"It's about trust and responsibility for treaty agreements that were signed many many years ago when land was swapped," Jackson said. "And part of the treaty and trust responsibilities were for housing, and that's been put on the back burner. This thing has been brewing for many years, and it's finally coming to a head now."
Correction (Sept. 26): An earier photo caption in this story misidentified Sam Strong's title and the day of the hearing. Strong is the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Tribal Secretary.