New shelter opens for residents of Minneapolis homeless camp

James Loerzel (right) packs up his belongings to move.
James Loerzel, right, packs up his belongings to move to the new navigation center.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

More people living at a homeless encampment in Minneapolis are packing up their belongings Wednesday and moving into a temporary shelter across the highway. Construction crews hope to complete the so-called navigation center by the end of the week, which, when finished, will house up to 120 people.

Teresa Graves was one of the first to move into the navigation center when it opened on Tuesday. She loaded everything she wanted to take with her into the back of a small SUV. Everything else in her eight-person tent, she said, could go to the dump. Maybe someone could use her mattress.

"It's brand new, was in the plastic and everything. And an end table. There's a good end table in there," she said.

Graves set up a tent on a narrow strip of grass between Hiawatha Avenue and a concrete sound barrier months before it could be called an encampment. She watched it grow from a couple of tents to as many as 200 at one point.

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"I'm happy, I'm grateful. But everybody up here is my family," Graves said indicating the new shelter across the road. "I mean, I'm only going right there but it is overwhelming. Me and my fiance have spent since April in here."

Construction crews work on temporary shelters at the "navigation center."
Construction crews erect three structures to temporarily shelter people from the homeless camp.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

Phoenix Jabalee, a 27-year-old trans woman, was excited to move into the navigation center on Tuesday despite having had traumatic experiences at other shelters. She says she's been assaulted in shelters and harassed for being trans.

The navigation center staff told her, "'We want to hear your experience and you're going to help us train the staff on day one because we want to hear what's working out here, what's not working out here.' So just that simple thing makes me feel more comfortable and makes me feel like they have my back," she said.

Kelly Oquist isn't sure if she'll move yet. She's been living at the encampment for a few months. She says she'll move anywhere, just not to a shelter. But she is curious about what the navigation center looks like. That was enough of an opening for outreach worker Fawn Mason.

She tells Oquist there isn't a curfew, "You can come and go as you want 24 hours a day. You have your own space. Your own storage. It's community living, but you'll have your own cubicle," Mason explains.

Like most people at the encampment and many people responding to it, Mason and Oquist are Native American. Mason reassures Oquist that Native people are in charge at the shelter.

Teresa Graves, center, is comforted by her friend as she packs up.
Teresa Graves, center, is comforted by her friend as she prepares to leave the encampment where she's been living since April on Tuesday.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

By the end of the conversation, Oquist didn't commit to moving there, but didn't rule it out either.

Mason and other outreach workers are optimistic this navigation center will work, and that the model of accepting anyone and offering services will be adopted by shelters across the state.

The city has not set a time when the encampment along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues will close.