This is part five of a five-part series from MPR News examining how the city of Minneapolis approached homeless encampments in 2022.
Updated: June 14, 11:55 a.m. | Posted: Feb. 1, 4 a.m.
Lee Henderson, who is 55, had been living in a tent encampment near Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.
He’s dealt with housing insecurity since the early 2000s. He’s tried many shelters, but none of them worked well for him.
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“Some of them want you out by like 6 in the morning. There ain’t nothing open. Bus is the only thing running. Just bing bing bing like a pinball machine, trying to find something to do or where to stay … somewhere warm,” he said.
Henderson heard word about a new place called Avivo Village that sounded different and piqued his interest. He heard the shelter would help you get housing.
He was nervous, but decided to take the leap into the unknown.
MPR News spoke with Henderson in December, four months into living at Avivo Village, while he was working on securing housing and getting connected with benefits he’s entitled to as a veteran.
“I like the environment. It’s better, warmer. I like the staff. I like that I can express myself through artwork or painting. I like the room because it’s your own little space. People can’t get your stuff or steal your stuff. I like the residents — some of them are pretty cool,” Henderson said.
Avivo Village is an indoor community of 100 small units in the North Loop where adult residents stay for an average of about four and a half months while they’re assisted in securing housing of their own. It was designed to be a safer alternative to encampments.
Henderson’s eager to get a place of his own, but said moving out won’t be the last time he visits Avivo Village.
“I’m gonna come back, and I’m gonna volunteer here. Because I think they could use me,” he said.
Henderson is one of the many success stories to come out of Avivo Village, one of several new homeless shelters that have opened in Minneapolis over the past couple of years. What sets Avivo Village apart is it is specifically designed for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness — those staying in encampments, in cars, under bridges, in abandoned buildings and otherwise outside.
Several residents moved to Avivo Village after being evicted from encampments in the fall.
“It’s just passed the milestone of moving more than 100 people on to permanent housing. And every time they move somebody on, they're able to bring somebody else out of an encampment in,” David Hewitt, director of housing stability at Hennepin County, said in October.
As of December, that number had risen to 119 people.
The indoor-village concept originated from advocates, social workers, philanthropic leaders and elected officials who gathered input from people living outdoors in 2020 about what it would take for them to come indoors, and then raised some initial funds.
The nonprofit Avivo was then asked to bring the idea to life and be its service provider and operator, supported with funding from the city, county and state as well as donors. Avivo Village was tailored with the feedback provided by encampment residents.
Most of what was shared had to do with autonomy — things like coming and going as you please without curfew, the choice of if or when to seek sobriety and being able to take pets.
Typical shelters have strict rules that can be highly difficult to follow, especially for those struggling with an addiction or substance dependency. They also often require people to part with most of their belongings.
“No shame, no stigma once you walk in these doors,” said Emily Bastian, vice president of ending homelessness at Avivo.
The residence has hosted 14 dogs and eight cats since it opened in December 2020. Thirteen people have delivered babies during their stay, with two more on the way. And 81 overdoses have been reversed there, Bastian said. Residents are also connected with medical care and other support services.
“People are coming indoors when they haven’t come indoors previously, and there are folks that are working with street outreach workers that are saying, ‘I will come inside when there's room at Avivo Village. And until then, I’m staying here,’” Bastian said.
She said that might be the project’s biggest accomplishment.
“The community that we are attempting to serve is feeling safe, and like they can trust us, and that we’re relevant.”
City focuses on affordable housing progress
Where Avivo Village is focusing on getting people indoors, the city’s work on housing looks more to the long term.
After the Wall of Forgotten Natives — one of the state’s largest homeless encampments ever — began drawing public attention in 2018, the city and county, in partnership with housing nonprofit Simpson Housing Services, created a temporary shelter near the encampment called the Navigation Center. Residents got their basic needs met while service providers worked to get them into permanent housing. It opened in December 2018 and closed in June 2019.
The positive reception of the Navigation Center gave lessons that were then applied to the development of new shelters like Avivo Village and Homeward Bound, which is a 50-bed facility operated by the American Indian Community Development Corporation.
But both Hewitt and Frey said the exact model of the Navigation Center has drawbacks, including that it was essentially a giant tent.
“Would we set up another Navigation Center? Of course we would consider that, but the form in which it takes … I think that the primary thing is it’s got to be inside,” Frey said.
Mayor Frey called shelter a “secondary goal” and said his administration’s priority is getting people into housing.
“The goal here is not encampments. The goal is not shelter. The goal is long-term, stable and deeply affordable, low- or no-barrier housing. That's the most important piece, and we gotta keep our eye on the ball on that,” he said.
The city said it’s producing almost five times as much affordable rental housing since 2019 for those at or below 30 percent of the area median income. There are an estimated 74,000 households in Hennepin County in that income range, but currently only 14,000 units of subsidized housing is affordable to them.
Frey said the pandemic changed his plans for working on homelessness and that, while the city had to “step up,” he also thinks it’s not only the city’s issue to handle.
“I do believe that this needs to be a regional issue. This needs to be attacked statewide in all forms. Has Minneapolis stepped up in huge ways that we never have before? Absolutely. Do we need to do more even on top of that? Absolutely. We do. And we do also need a regional approach.”
Hennepin County points to its new Streets to Housing case management team as a recent win in tackling homelessness.
In the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 relief funding allowed the county to get hotels for unsheltered people. They developed the Streets to Housing team after seeing how effective it was to transition people directly from hotels to permanent housing.
With individualized help for each of those residents in hotels, the county helped 464 people get housing. The program works: Hewitt said 97 percent of those residents still live in those homes.
“When we ensured that every single person in that setting had somebody to work alongside them towards permanent housing, we saw tremendous momentum and tremendous success,” said Hewitt.
The county’s new Streets to Housing team is doing this same work, but out in the community instead of at hotels. Hewitt said the team has moved over 300 people into housing since launching in February 2022. Approximately half of those residents were previously living outside in places like encampments.
'We don’t have enough capacity to meet the need'
Mayor Frey noted that some of the city’s best work on housing came from outside City Hall.
“One example of that is Avivo,” he said. “This amazing concept that was formed largely by people with lived experience.”
With its successes, one big challenge that the Village is facing is its scope.
“We need to be bigger,” Bastian said. “We don’t have enough capacity to meet the need.”
Mayor Frey told MPR News he would support building another Avivo Village in south Minneapolis.
“We don’t always agree, but we’ve definitely appreciated his backing,” Bastian said.
Avivo is in the process of securing funding and determining the specific location for its south Minneapolis site. Bastian estimates the city would need at least five more Avivo Village locations to make a real impact on adult unsheltered homelessness.
While it’s impossible to pin it to one reason, Hennepin County saw unsheltered homelessness decrease by 24 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to Hewitt. This comes from the annual point-in-time count conducted each January. Hewitt notes the count is imperfect, but it is the primary way states track unsheltered homelessness. The city conducted its 2023 count this month, but the results are still being processed.
However, even Avivo, arguably the peak of the city’s progress last year on ending homelessness, doesn’t want to be associated with the city’s encampment evictions.
“I absolutely recognize that encampments are not safe and that in our community, we shouldn't have people needing to be in an encampment because that is their only option. And evicting encampments is also not the solution, because people have to be somewhere,” Bastian said. “And so to continue to evict just means that we are continuing to move the issue instead of fully addressing the issue.”