Minneapolis encampment residents moving to housing as city and nonprofits search for beds, opioid treatment

A large tipi in an encampment
A large tipi stands near the entrance to Camp Nenookaasi in Minneapolis on Nov. 30.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: 5:22 p.m.

A large encampment is forcing city leaders to find solutions to an already complicated set of public health and public safety issues involving opioid use and homelessness.

Around 150 people are now living at Camp Nenookaasi in tents and yurts. Organizers said those who were using opioids were allowed to do so, with Narcan on hand to revive anyone who overdosed. They said it was a better alternative to overdosing on the street.

“They’re not using alone, and we have spaces for like when they don’t feel well from their withdraws or they’re tapering off or needing extra support, we have a space for that,” said camp organizer Nicole Mason.

A Native woman speaks into a mic
Camp Nenookaasi organizer Nicole Mason (left) speaks during a rally in south Minneapolis to protest the city’s planned eviction of the encampment on Dec. 13. The city postponed that eviction.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Now those who can provide housing for the Nenookaasi residents say they are helping to provide more stable environments — one which respects that often unsheltered people are drawn to living in encampments because they provide a sense of belonging.

“We cannot forget or shouldn’t forget, and need to recognize, the vantage point of the people who live there,” said Adam Fairbanks, who leads Helix Housing and Health, a company he co-owns.

Helix is a mental health company which also supports people in finding housing.

He’s adapted a set of principles from what’s known as a harm reduction model for working with people at encampments. It’s a model that “chooses to work to minimize harmful effects, rather than simply ignore or condemn [encampments].”

Helix has helped house more than 60 people in units around Minneapolis from the encampment since mid-November. They expect to house more than a dozen people in the coming weeks. Fairbanks says it is much easier for his workers to help camp residents find housing while they’re still in one place.

But Indigenous leadership circles in Minneapolis disagree over this approach to opioid use disorder that they say has led to people staying in the camp too long.

An orange sharps container is obscured by a shadow
A sharps container sits next to a tent inside Camp Nenookaasi in Minneapolis on Nov. 30.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, a network of more than 30 Native nonprofit leaders, have expressed frustration and disappointment with the mayor and the city council for allowing the camp to remain.

“We’re just asking the city to take the lead on this,” said Louise Matson, a vice president of Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors.

Gun violence and drug dealing is taking a toll on the neighborhood next to the camp — many of whom are also Indigenous. The group also says many neighborhood residents are fearful of speaking up for fear of retaliation. The city is planning to contract with a security company to patrol the fence around Nenookaasi.

Earlier this month, the Minneapolis City Council declared unsheltered homelessness a public health emergency. City council member Elliott Payne supported the move.

“And a public health approach is really trying to shift our response to these livability challenges from a criminal justice lens to a public health lens,” Payne said.

The leader of the Native American Community Clinic, located two blocks from Camp Nenookaasi, Antony Stately says he wants more attention to the crisis of opioid use disorder. The clinic has a drop-in Suboxone program, one of the treatments for opioid addiction. The focus is on preventing fatal overdoses.

A person walks along a boardwalk in a tent camp
A resident walks down the central path inside the encampment in south Minneapolis on Nov. 30.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

He says agencies were given the resources to fight COVID and wonders why there isn’t a similar effort spent on the crisis of unsheltered people and untreated opioid use.

Stately says city, county leaders and nonprofits are going to have to agree on supporting and housing people with substance use disorder to prevent future encampments from popping up.

“And the difference between that, and the difference between the conditions we’re talking about with respect to my specific community ... is who is being served in those conversations, and whether or not we think that those lives are valuable enough to move heaven and earth and make it rain some actual money.”

Correction (Dec. 21, 2023): An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the owner of Helix Housing and Health. The above version has been updated.

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