Dozens housed from 'Wall of Forgotten Natives'
Special to Indian Country Today
MINNEAPOLIS — Traffic barriers and streetlight posts are back up and gates erected and padlocked as a homeless encampment on land here dubbed the "Wall of Forgotten Natives" was officially closed this week after temporary housing was obtained for any Native person who wanted it, officials said.
Perhaps learning from a nightmare experience in 2018 — when a monthslong encampment at the site grew to more than 400 people and captured national attention — city, county and state departments worked quickly with Native outreach workers and social agencies to limit this year's camp to the month of September and a maximum population of about 120.
“It was a very concerted effort by a lot of organizations, a lot of outreach workers and the city, state and county in regards to finding people places to go,” said American Indian Community Development Corporation CEO Michael Goze, Ho Chunk.
Rioting in late May after George Floyd's death at the hands of Minnesota police left even more people homeless in a metropolis already struggling with a shortage of affordable housing and beds for the indigent. A Christmas Day fire that destroyed a downtown hotel that had been converted to transitional housing, leaving 250 homeless, didn’t help.
Tent cities sprang up this summer in numerous public parks in a city ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in 2020 for its parks system by the Trust for Public Land.
One of the many encampments across the city was near the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in south Minneapolis. It disbanded after reports of gunshots, heroin use and sex trafficking in a Native neighborhood that is home to Indian families, kids and grandparents.
Around Sept. 1, resource center outreach workers Jase Roe, Northern Cheyenne, and Jenny Bjorgo, Wind River, led a core group of homeless Natives back to the Wall of Forgotten Natives, which had been closed since December 2018. The "wall," owned by Minnesota's transportation agency, is a narrow, triangular strip of land along a highway sound barrier near Hiawatha and Franklin avenues.
As the camp grew, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center President and CEO Marisa Miakonda Cummings, Omaha, conducted a survey and found 120 Natives living in 74 tents, including children, two pregnant women and at least four elderly women.
At the camp in 2018, when it was first dubbed the Wall of Forgotten Natives, at least two people died, several cases of the staph infection MRSA were recorded due to the cramped, side-by-side living conditions on just a half-acre, and rampant, open heroin use was common. Fights and other disruption occurred, including disputes over who was in charge. Social services workers were often confronted and left.
This year, agencies like the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, the American Indian Community Development Corporation, St. Stephen’s, Avivo, the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, State Police and the Minnesota Department of Transportation quickly teamed up to offer security, housing and meals and to prevent the situation from mushrooming.
Avivo, a Twin Cities nonprofit housing agency, was key in getting 63 Natives into a hotel in the suburb of Coon Rapids, about 20 miles north, for a three-month stay.
When rooms there opened, Roe and Bjorgo would seek to fill them from their clipboard roster of original campers. Other campers were placed in scattered-site housing, Cummings said, while some declined.
After word grew that social services and meals were being offered at the Wall of Forgotten Natives, other homeless, Native and non-Native, came and would take over tents left behind by Natives who obtained shelter.
“The last 20 people at the wall, they just didn’t want anything,” Goze said. “They just choose to live in tents. As long as the weather holds up, they’re willing to do that.”
The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center is a social services agency primarily committed to helping Native women with housing, cultural-based parenting classes, substance abuse, holistic growth, clothing and meals.
The experience was an eye-opener for Cummings, a Sioux City, Iowa, native who took the resource center role on Aug. 5 after coming from the University of South Dakota, where she was the director of Native student services.
She said she witnessed open heroin use, drug dealing, carrying of firearms and sex trafficking at the Wall.
“My background isn’t in drug and alcohol counseling or anything like that,” she said. “And heroin is a whole different ballgame."
Her staff had access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and had to administer it, she said. "In the old days, it was meth and alcohol. It’s not like that here.”
Cummings said the Minnesota Department of Transportation staff cleaned up the site wearing hazmat suits.
It’s an unfortunate routine for Goze, who lives in the neighborhood and has worked the south Minneapolis streets for 12 years advocating for Natives as the American Indian Community Development Corporation's director.
“All in all, it went without incident,” Goze said. “A lot of communication between the parties and the campers; no ‘Hell, no, we won’t go,’ and all that."
But "it ain’t over," he said, noting other encampments have sprung up or grown.
“We’re still plugging away. As the weather changes we’ve got to be more diligent in putting people in housing as winter comes and out of hotels. Hotels aren’t sustainable.”
Goze said his organization is working to open a 50-bed, 24-hour-a-day Native culturally specific shelter at a vacant Cedar Box Company site in the area by the middle of November or early December.
Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer based in Minneapolis.
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