Families at homeless encampment weigh staying together, seeking shelter

Maggie Thunder Hawk pushes a stroller filled with plastic bags.
Maggie Thunder Hawk pushes a stroller filled with plastic bags of donated clothes and blankets from her tent back to the donation table at the homeless encampment near Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis on Oct. 18, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Maggie Thunder Hawk has had more than one chance to move out of the homeless encampment in Minneapolis and into her own place. But she's chosen to live in a tent to be near her adult children, who also are homeless.

"I can't see myself in a home when my kids are still going to be outside. That ain't going to be right," Thunder Hawk said.

Thunder Hawk's story highlights the vexing problem government and nonprofit leaders face even as they rush to build a temporary shelter for camp members as winter approaches. Many there want housing that will let them stay with extended family members. But for a variety of reasons, that solution is in short supply, either in the short-term form of shelter or the long-term form of affordable housing.

At one time, Thunder Hawk was living in the encampment with six of her adult children and five grandchildren. But with winter approaching, she says they've had no choice but to split up. One daughter moved with her three kids to Richfield. The other daughter with kids started going to a shelter at night, but coming back during the day.

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"I was talking to my boy last night and he told me 'Mom, if you get a housing opportunity take it.' He said, 'Mom don't worry about us, we'll be all right,'" Thunder Hawk said. "I don't know. I've been with my kids for so long it wouldn't be right."

Tents fill a strip of land near Hiawatha Ave.
Tents fill a strip of land near Hiawatha Avenue that has become the largest homeless encampment in the state.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Thunder Hawk has been homeless going on 12 years. She cleans houses, but doesn't earn enough for an apartment. Still, Thunder Hawk likes the encampment community. She can leave her belongings unattended. She can't say that about camping anywhere else.

"You have to pack up all your stuff, or all your stuff will be gone. They'll throw it away. City comes by and tosses everything you own," Thunder Hawk said.

The encampment really started growing in late August, when officials decided to stop clearing tents on the property. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey says the city didn't want to evict people without having a better place for them to go.

"Simply bulldozing the encampment, we did not believe was the compassionate response, so we're taking a different route this time," Frey said. "A route that accounts for the dignity of the human beings that are there."

Hennepin County, which operates about 1,000 shelter beds, says it's been able to place 18 encampment families into shelters. They've found supportive housing for three families. But tents continue to pop up, now surpassing 200.

The city agreed to spend $1.5 million to build an emergency shelter on property owned by the Red Lake Nation. They hope to have it ready by early December to house about 150 people through winter. It's described as a low-barrier alternative to traditional shelter, which city and tribal leaders hope will be attractive to people at the encampment.

Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, says she's not surprised Thunder Hawk stays at the encampment with her family instead of seeking shelter.

"To be surviving day by day, you are making decisions for yourself and your family who are with you every single day, moment by moment. And it may not be the safest way to live but you are truly free in a lot of ways," Park said. "The housing response of shelter is you can't have food in your room. Your lights have to be out by 10. If you leave after 10, you can't come back. No chemical use. You have to be sober. It takes a person from this survival mode of independence into being treated essentially like children."

Maggie Thunder Hawk tears up as she talks about finding housing.
Maggie Thunder Hawk tears up as she talks about finding housing for her entire family to live together.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Park says there aren't many affordable housing options for families like Thunder Hawk's either. For that, she blames the city for blocking housing development that would support multigenerational families and communal living.

"The Minneapolis residents have an ownership in this problem, because they lobby very strongly against the multifamily you know duplexes, quads, you know people don't want that in their neighborhood. Well, that says something, right. Anyone in those areas saying they don't want that kind of development but have one of those 'All Are Welcome Here' signs in front of them are hypocrites," Park said.

For Thunder Hawk, the way things are now, everything seems to involve the one thing she doesn't want to do: split up from her family.

"I wish it would just go back to the olden days where you could live anywhere you wanted to and on the land. It'd be so great," Thunder Hawk said.