Judge declines to halt Nenookaasi closure

A large tipi in an encampment
A large tipi stands near the entrance to Camp Nenookaasi, set to be evicted Thursday, in Minneapolis on Nov. 30.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

Updated: 6:17 p.m.

A judge has turned down an effort to stop the closure of a large encampment in Minneapolis, which appears on schedule to take place Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Eric Tostrud said Wednesday afternoon plaintiffs did not show that the city’s plans to close Camp Nenookaasi violated the residents’ constitutional rights.

Tostrud said the city had provided the camp's residents with ample notice and provided opportunity to store their belongings.

Two residents of a large encampment of unsheltered people filed a class action complaint Tuesday in federal court against Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

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Residents of Camp Nenookaasi, Cheryl Sagataw and DeAnthony Barnes, filed the suit on behalf of approximately 150 of people still residing at the camp.

The plaintiffs allege the city’s planned eviction of the large encampment violates their constitutional rights to privacy and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Motivation for the lawsuit 

Speaking from around a warming fire inside the encampment surrounded by tents, yurts and other lodgings, Sagataw, 32, said she added her name to the complaint out of a sense of obligation to others at the encampment.

“Maybe if I say something, maybe other people will start to say something. That’s how change comes,” said Sagataw. One other camp resident has added his name to the suit.

The complaint alleges that the eviction from the camp will result in “destruction and disposal” of their personal belongings “without warrants or other legal justification.”  

The complaint also alleges the mayor has “not proposed a safe and reasonable alternative housing plan for plaintiffs, and his actions will leave Plaintiffs vulnerable.”

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

Sagataw and Barnes also say residents lack a way to challenge the seizure of their personal property or reclaim it once it has been seized or discarded.

Attorney Kira Kelley points to a nonbinding ruling in the Ninth Circuit which held that it was unlawful for the city of Boise, Idaho to enforce criminal penalties on unsheltered people seeking to protect themselves against the elements.

That ruling cited a Supreme Court decision from 1962 in which the high court ruled that because addiction was a disease “contracted innocently or involuntarily,” criminalizing an individual’s status as a person with addiction was “an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.”

The judge rejected that argument. The city intends to close the encampment, according to city spokesperson Sarah McKenzie.  

“For months, the City has worked with community partners and service providers to connect community members at the encampment with housing and shelter options,” said McKenzie in a written statement. “The City has postponed the closure date two times already in order to allow dedicated time to work with service providers and get people directly connected to housing and shelter options.”

Through its partnership with county and private housing groups, McKenzie stated the city has housed 104 people at the encampment. She added that local shelters plan to make another 90 beds available to camp residents this week in anticipation of the camp’s closing.

The city also says it has entered into pre-development agreement with the Indigenous People’s Task Force. The nonprofit organization is planning to begin construction on a cultural center as early as this spring. 

Steam rises from a blue tarp
Steam rises from the roof of a tent at Camp Nenookaasi in Minneapolis on the morning of Nov. 30.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

Reducing harm at Nenookaasi

Nenookaasi, the name for the hummingbird in the Ojibwe language, recalls the story of how a single hummingbird attempted to put out a forest fire by carrying a drop of water in its tiny beak. When others insist that a single drop of water will do little to help, the little bird replies that she is doing the best she can.

There are several camps involved in deciding what happens next at Camp Nenookaasi. The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors have repeatedly called on the city to clear the encampment.

In early December, the Minneapolis City Council declared unsheltered homelessness a public health emergency. The mayor’s office has worked closely with Helix Health and Housing, a group which has adapted a harm reduction approach to house people from the encampment.

Camp organizers say their approach involves reducing the harm unsheltered people experience. Organizers have described a set of informal practices intended to reduce overdose from opioid use within the camp.

Sagataw is a tribal citizen of the Hannahville Indian Community, Band of Potawatomi. She said she had stable housing at a nearby supportive housing development for unsheltered people with substance use disorder. She said a disagreement with a worker and a missed meeting led to her being evicted.

From there, she says she moved to a small encampment near East 25th Street and Bloomington Avenue and then later took shelter beneath Interstate 94. She moved to the small encampment which formed again at the Wall of Forgotten Natives along Hiawatha Avenue this past summer. She moved to Camp Nenookaasi after that encampment was pulled down in mid-August.  

A Native woman poses for a portrait
Camp Nenookaasi resident Cheryl Sagataw, one of two people to file a suit against Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, poses for a photo across the street from the encampment on Thursday in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“There are ups and downs,” said Sagataw. “But ... all around, [Camp Nenookaasi] is the most structured and the safest place that I’ve probably been since I guess have, technically, been on the streets.”  

Sagataw believes the camp has helped improve the basic health of its residents. In addition to creating informal practices to reduce the harm wrought by prolonged substance use disorder, Sagataw says having a reliable place to sleep reduces the amount of time people spend on their feet, which in turn reduces injury from walking.

She says Nenookaasi is also safer than the other places where she’s lived. 

“Since I’ve been here, I haven’t seen anyone come up missing. Before this camp, I know two people who are missing, and nothing has even been said [about them],” said Sagataw. “Here, pretty much everyone watches out for everyone.”

Sagataw says she had been the victim of intimate partner violence while living in Michigan. After the father of her children reached her by phone, she says she decided not to return. She’s remained in Minnesota, and was seeking to remain at Nenookaasi. 

Like many others in the camp, she’s also hoping to secure permanent housing soon — something she says is much easier while she and others remain at the camp. 

“Me not having a phone, it’s really hard. [The workers] are able to come and find me here.”

Correction (Jan. 4, 2024): A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Judge Tostrud. The above story is updated.