At a Minneapolis tent encampment, a chosen family sticks together in the storm

Two people sit on a bed inside of a tent home
Samira (left) and Eric were some of the first residents at an encampment in Minnneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
Grace Birnstengel | MPR News

Living outside is a matter of survival, regardless of what the weather’s like. From brazen summer heat to this week’s subzero temperatures and extreme wind, many communities of tent encampments in Minneapolis rely on one another to get through.

That’s the case for Samira, Eric and Jaylin, three residents at the 80-plus tent city in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood who met living on the streets and have become family. MPR News met the three at the encampment on Thursday and sat down to talk inside of Eric’s tent. They chose not to share their last names for privacy.

For this chosen family, a major weather event is not welcome news, but in a way it’s just another day. When you’re homeless, they said, you live moment-to-moment. They’ve seen and been through worse. Preparing for cold and snow is a lot like preparing for any other day. You do what you can and hope for the best.

Tents and bikes in an encampment, covered with a layer of snow
Eric's tent is covered in a fresh layer of snow after this week's winter storm.
Grace Birnstengel | MPR News

“Tomorrow ain’t never promised, so I don’t ever plan on tomorrow or what tomorrow has to carry, ‘cause I’m not there yet,” said 31-year-old Samira.

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Eric’s tent can fit several people, and if they can find enough propane tanks to fuel their heaters, the three can stay fairly warm. Samira’s tent next door is smaller and caving in from the 7 to 8 inches of snow that had fallen across Minneapolis in the prior 24 hours. She wants to get it upright again, but being outside a tent for too long is uncomfortable if not dangerous. Wind gusts on Thursday pushed wind chill temperatures below -30 degrees. 

The weather is just one of many daily hurdles for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, along with getting enough — or anything — to eat, staying safe and keeping your head up while stuck in a tent.

“We fear for our lives,” Samira said. “This ain’t a house. This ain’t somewhere where there’s walls. We’re basically in a bag. It is scary at night when you hear gunshots out of nowhere.”

Hennepin County’s 12 shelters are at capacity, but no one is being turned away during this unbearably cold stretch. The county system is currently sheltering approximately 1,600 people, according to a spokesperson. A new shelter in northeast Minneapolis called Rescue Now opened a week early to help with the need.

Even so, homeless shelters aren’t always practical options for people in encampments.

“A shelter is a place that you gotta call, wait and probably not have a chance to get into one. My tent is guaranteed. I know I can come back to my tent,” said Samira.

The three would rather be able to stick together, come and go as they please and keep hold of their belongings.

Jaylin is 19 and one of many young people living in the Cedar-Riverside encampment.

A bundled up boy sits in a chair inside of a tent, smiles
Nineteen-year-old Jaylin is bundled up inside of his friend Eric's tent on Thursday.
Grace Birnstengel | MPR News

“I stayed at a shelter once. Tried it. Union Gospel Mission in Ramsey County,” Jaylin said. “I couldn’t even stay there for a full day because … you’re expecting me to throw every last little thing I have down to a duffle bag of clothes? The things that I have and worked hard for.”

Jaylin, Eric and Samira were some of the first people at the growing encampment. That was almost three months ago. Before here, they were bouncing from spot to spot.

“When one goes, we all go,” said Eric, who is 38.

The city of Minneapolis currently has a zero-tolerance stance on homeless encampments. Crews of city workers routinely clear encampments, tossing tents and everything inside of them in dumpsters.

So far, this encampment hasn’t heard threats of eviction — in fact, the city recently coordinated with the state to place port-a-potties here —  but it likely won’t go undisturbed for long. Just this past week, the state transportation department forced out people living on 31st Street underneath Interstate 35W.  

A tent encampment near a light rail station
A line of tents at the encampment near Currie Park in Cedar-Riverside. In three months the camp has grown to more than 80 tents.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“They don’t realize that people in these tents … everything in they tent is really all they got in life. So when they come and tear your s--- up, and completely destroy your home — something you built — that just adds to the problem,” Eric said. “People already feel hopeless and like they have nothing to lose.”

Samira is worried about her community in the encampment. She said it’s not uncommon for people to feel like giving up.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t want to live because they are where they are. They feel like death is better than being out here,” she said.

The three are grateful to have one another. They keep each other afloat through the emotional distress of their circumstances, and protected from the inherent threats of living outside in the city.

“I can say that since I have met these people, especially these two people right here, I’ve learned a lot,” said Jaylin. “Every day you get a chance to wake up – that you have breath – that is success right there. You never know when that time will come.”

To help homeless neighbors, ask them what they need. The Sanctuary Supply Depot also collects and distributes survival supplies to encampments. Donate via PayPal, shop their Amazon wishlist or find them on Twitter and Instagram.

Resources for those seeking shelter: