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What worked, what didn't, with experimental shelter in Minneapolis?

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The navigation center built to house Minneapolis' homeless.
The navigation center built to house Minneapolis' homeless population after the closure of the encampment on Franklin and Hiawatha avenues is seen on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As a Minneapolis shelter that was designed to temporarily house people from the state's largest tent encampment gets ready to close, about 50 individuals are still living there.

But most, like Artemis Griffin, have an apartment lined up.

With the help he received at the shelter — known as a navigation center — Griffin is moving into a place with his wife and dog in just a couple weeks. He's been homeless for about four years and was sleeping anywhere he could: campsites, under stairs, friends' homes and different shelters.

"But out of all the places that I've been, this place has helped me the most," Griffin said. "I got nothing bad to say about it."

The experimental center will be shuttered June 3, less than six months after it opened. City officials and their partners say the first-of-its-kind facility was a success, though a costly one and not likely to be replicated by the city.

Not everyone who stayed at the navigation center made it into housing or treatment. Some ended up jail or prison. About a dozen refused help finding housing and will move into other shelters or go back on the street when the navigation center closes.

Construction crews work on temporary shelters at the "navigation center."
Construction crews work on Dec. 11, 2018, to erect three structures to temporarily shelter people from Minneapolis' homeless encampment through the coming months.
Max Nesterak | MPR News 2018

The center opened in December to temporarily house 175 people from the encampment along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues. Since then, most have moved on to permanent housing or treatment for chemical dependency.

"About 60 percent have gone to what we would call positive outcomes," said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing, which ran the shelter portion of the navigation center. "I mean if all of our shelters were able to house 60 percent of all the people staying there over a five-month period ... I mean, that is a tremendous outcome."

Horsfield credits an unprecedented collaboration between numerous government and nonprofit agencies, along with its permissive, come-as-you-are approach and the on-site services.

Unlike typical shelters across the state, people were not turned away for being high or drunk, they could come and go 24 hours a day, and they were not separated by gender which allowed people to stay with their partners and adult family members. The navigation center was also different from typical shelters in Minnesota by providing "wrap-around services" — health care, mental health treatment and support with finding housing.

Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, city coordinator for Minneapolis, said the center served people who some believed would never seek help.

"If you meet people where they are, and you put investment in health services and mental health resources, and you engage community in a different way, and you engage housing providers in a different way, there are successes to be had even with some of the people that have spent years and years and years on the streets," she said.

The navigation center was designed to have as few rules as possible as part of its "harm-reduction" approach. A restorative justice program to help people resolve their differences was even implemented, Horsfield said. But about 40 people who were deemed a threat to others were kicked out.

People living in and working at the navigation center are up front about other challenges and failures, too. Drug use is ubiquitous and difficult to manage. Two people died from overdoses. Bathrooms and services are in separate trailers, which meant people had to go outside in the dead of winter to go to the bathroom or meet with a social worker. Residents also complain of belongings getting stolen and feeling unsafe — problems that are, unfortunately, too common in all shelters.

While the speed at which it opened was a surprise for anyone familiar with the typical slow churn of government and nonprofit partnerships, the pace left workers scrambling at the beginning.

"The navigation center opened up really quickly," said Margaret King, a consultant for the city of Minneapolis. "That's good because it was freezing cold and snowing and the winter was upon us but ... nobody would want to repeat starting a 175-person low-barrier shelter in two weeks."

Construction crews work on finishing the inside of a tent-like structure.
Construction crews work on finishing the inside of one of three tent-like structures that can each shelter up to 40 people near a homeless encampment in Minneapolis on Dec. 10, 2018.
Max Nesterak | MPR News 2018

The city of Minneapolis doesn't plan to continue the navigation center elsewhere — it's trying to find a buyer for the three tent-like structures it bought to house people in. The Red Lake Nation is considering creating something similar. It's been a leader in responding to the encampment and owns the land where the navigation center is. It plans to break ground there this fall on a 110-unit affordable housing complex.

The total cost of the navigation center cost more than $3 million to build and operate. About half came from an anonymous donor. The state, Hennepin County and local Native-led nonprofits also beefed up their services around the navigation center.

But for all that investment, the underlying issue — a lack of affordable housing — remains unchanged. If anything, it's gotten worse. A recent report from the Wilder Foundation found homelessness has risen 10 percent in Minnesota over the past three years. The foundation documented an even sharper jump in the unsheltered population, meaning those not staying in shelters or with family.

That means government officials are preparing to deal with future encampments. They don't plan to allow one to grow as large as the one last year, a camp that many of its residents called the Wall of Forgotten Natives. Most of the people staying there were Native American.

"Encampments in general are not something that we as a city want to allow want to encourage," Rivera-Vandermyde said. "We heard from a lot of advocates that encampments, particularly ones of this scale, are just not healthy. And so what we're trying to do and what we've learned is that the better approach is to continue to double down in efforts in outreach and in connections."

The area around where the encampment used to be is fenced off with a "no trespassing" sign. But across the street from the navigation center, someone just set up a tent on a small strip of grass. It's unclear how long it will be allowed to stay.