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As Mpls. navigation center closes, leaders look to replicate successes

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The navigation center is seen Monday.
An experimental homeless shelter along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues in Minneapolis, known as the "navigation center," is seen on Monday. At one point, 176 people lived in the temporary shelter.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

The last 25 residents of a temporary shelter in Minneapolis moved out Monday. Some found their own apartments or relocated into different shelters. Others returned to the street. 

The so-called navigation center was built to house nearly 200 people from a predominantly Native American homeless encampment along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues. 

Alexa Thunder Hawk, 29, packed her things to move into another shelter, but she will be in her own place soon. With help from a social worker at the navigation center, she has a studio apartment lined up and will move in this month.  

"If the staff hear this like, they are awesome and thank you," Thunder Hawk said. "They are pretty good people ... every one of 'em." 

Nearly half of the roughly 175 people who lived in the so-called navigation center have moved into permanent housing, chemical dependency treatment or nursing homes. The other half moved to other shelters, were incarcerated or kicked out. 

The navigation center found housing at a much higher rate than the 15 percent typically seen in shelters, said Steve Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing, which ran the shelter portion of the navigation center. 

The center was the first of its kind in Minnesota because it had few requirements for entry. Unlike many shelters in the region, people were not turned away for being high or drunk. They were allowed to stay with partners and pets, and they were able to come and go 24 hours a day.  

"It was crazy at times, but it was better than living out on the streets," Thunder Hawk said. "[The staff] helped a lot. I mean, most of us would probably be dead if we weren't here. OD'd by now if we were on the streets and these people weren't here to save us." 

Drug use and overdoses were common at the shelter, which took a harm-reduction approach, focusing primarily on overdose death prevention rather than drug use. 

Thunder Hawk, who had been homeless for about a decade, said having her own place will finally give her the stability to get sober. 

The navigation center was also unique in that it had on-site social services like counseling, culturally specific treatment — in this case, Native American — chemical dependency treatment and case managers. Jenny Bjorgo, an outreach worker with the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, said she wishes they had more time. 

"It took awhile to get up and get moving and now that it's all moving, it's over so quick and that's hard," Bjorgo said. "But in the time we had, we did a lot." 

The cost was more than $3 million, about half of which was funded by a private donor. It also took government and nonprofit agencies working together to build and run the site including the city of Minneapolis, the Red Lake Nation, Hennepin County, the state of Minnesota, Simpson Housing and Native-led nonprofits like the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, the American Indian Community Development Corporation and the Native American Community Development Institute. 

The Red Lake Nation, which played a key role in responding to the homeless tent encampment that stretched along a highway late last year, owns the land under the navigation center. About 4,000 Red Lake band members live in the Twin Cities, which has led the tribe to increase its presence in the metro area. They plan to break ground on a 110-unit affordable housing complex this fall. The Red Lake Nation also may build a permanent navigation center. 

"There are still people out there. And currently, after the navigation center closes, we are looking for properties so we can move the navigation center there, so we can continue to help the metropolitan area address the homelessness issue," said Darrell Seki, chair of the Red Lake Nation. 

Homelessness is on the rise in Minnesota, which saw a 10 percent increase over the past three years. Meanwhile, affordable housing and shelter beds continue to be in short supply. 

"This is a crisis," said Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender. "I'm proud of the role the city has played in stepping up to address the emergency situation at 'the Wall of Forgotten Natives' encampment, but I also know we need to be strategic and work in strong partnership going forward to make sure our investments are sustainable and are addressing this dramatic rise in homelessness across the state." 

City officials say they won't allow another large encampment to form, but are working on developing humane ways to address people living in tents. The coalition of government and nonprofit groups that worked on the navigation center are studying a regional approach to homelessness in the Twin Cities.