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In the midst of a housing shortage, Minneapolis struggles to help homeless

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Art Griffin
Art Griffin lived in the encampment and then the navigation center. His criminal background has been a barrier to landing an apartment.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

The site of the former homeless encampment in Minneapolis along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues, which once contained more than 200 tents, is now overgrown and empty. A chain link fence has blocked anyone from moving back since people from the encampment moved into a temporary shelter nearby called a navigation center. Today the navigation center is gone, but many of the people who lived there are still in the area and still homeless.

Despite the multi-million dollar response to the encampment, the lack of affordable housing across the Twin Cities — and throughout Minnesota — continues to be an insurmountable obstacle for many people trying to move off the street. That makes it especially difficult for the city of Minneapolis and its partners, who want to respond compassionately, but also want to prevent another large encampment.

For Art Griffin, that means he’s been able to camp in one spot under a bridge without his stuff being thrown away. He says police don’t bother him so long as he keeps it clean and there aren’t too many people in one place.

“[Police] don’t want a lot of filth. They don’t want it to be dirty. A lot of people do that . . . and I don’t blame people for not wanting people around. But I mean, we are human. We do deserve a chance,” Griffin said.

Griffin lived in the encampment, dubbed the Wall of Forgotten Natives, and then in the nearby navigation center. A social worker there had helped him and his girlfriend find an apartment. They were supposed to move in right as the navigation center was closing. Then, he got a call with bad news.

“It was the day they were supposed to give me the keys and everything. They said, ‘No we can’t accept you because of your criminal background.’ That really put a damper on things because I had put all my eggs in one basket,” Griffin said.

Griffin’s criminal history includes robbery, drug offenses, and assault. In a tight rental market, landlords don’t need to take a chance on people like him. For context, there are about 74,000 extremely poor households in Hennepin County, with annual incomes less than $26,000. But there are only 14,000 publicly-subsidized units these households could afford.

The housing shortage extends across the state. A task force commissioned by then-Governor Mark Dayton, found the state is not on track to build the 300,000 additional homes it needs by 2030.

With housing, Griffin says he’d be able to get his life on track.

“90 percent of people once they get homes . . . their addiction won’t be as bad. But if you got all these addicts out here in these streets at one time, of course it’s going to look real bad … and makes society look at us even worse,” Griffin said.

In the six months the navigation center was open, nearly half of the roughly 175 who lived there did move into housing or drug and alcohol treatment. Simpson Housing, which ran the shelter, said that’s a high success rate. 

The Red Lake Nation owns the land where the navigation center was. Red Lake plans to break ground on a 110-unit affordable housing complex there this fall and are also looking into building a permanent navigation center in the city, which pairs a harm reduction approach with on-site access to health care and social services.

One legacy of the navigation center is the greater level of collaboration between various government and non-profit agencies. The city of Minneapolis, the police department, the Red Lake Nation, Hennepin County, the state of Minnesota, members of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, Avivo, Simpson Housing, St. Stephen’s Street Outreach, and others helped people in the encampment and at the navigation center.

Today, some eight organizations including the Minneapolis police department meet every other week to share information about where homeless people are living and coordinate their response. They also signed on to three shared values in May in how to treat homeless people:

  1. Everyone experiencing unsheltered homelessness is vulnerable and deserving of being treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with their rights

  2. Every effort must be made to connect people to housing, shelter and services but there is not sufficient housing and shelter for everyone experiencing homelessness at present.

  3. Encampments represent a serious health and safety risk – particularly for those staying within the encampment – and do not represent a dignified form of shelter.

So, how does this work in practice? David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, gives the example of a homeless couple who are camping on private property. Outreach workers helped find the couple housing and worked with the property owner to let them camp there until their move-in day.

“Because we know they’re going to move into a unit, so it should be coming up any day now fingers crossed and touch wood. That’s a partnership between law enforcement and street outreach to support people who are unsheltered as they move toward the housing outcome,” Hewitt said.

Jenny Bjorgo (left), Tereysa Graves, and Jase Roe volunteer
Jenny Bjorgo (left), Tereysa Graves, and Jase Roe volunteer handing out food and water to homeless people Friday, July 26, 2019 in the Phillips neighborhood. Bjorgo and Roe have been doing this since the encampment began taking shape last year.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

For the people still living on the street, volunteers Jenny Bjorgo and Jase Roe have continued doing what they did last year as the encampment was taking shape: handing out food and water.

They pick up provisions from Cedar Food and Grill which donates about 10 to 15 cases of water and a few dozen bags of ice to them each week. Then they make their rounds, shouting at people in parks and on sidewalks — they know just about everyone.

As the encampment grew, they both got jobs with non-profit organizations to do paid outreach work first in the encampment and then in the navigation center. Bjorgo still works for the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. She also still spends her free time handing out provisions.

Bjorgo says the navigation center wasn’t a failure, it just closed too soon.

“It was starting to work, and as soon as everything got rolling and people knew what they were doing and everything started happening, we had all these move out dates, they closed. And I know it was a temporary situation but now people are wandering the streets, they don’t know what to do, they don’t know who to talk to,” Bjorgo said.