‘A Blessing,’ ‘a Family,’ and ‘a Shame on Minneapolis’: Voices from the Hiawatha Avenue Homeless Encampment

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(The following article was originally published on http://www.minnpost.com.)

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Three months ago, the first tent sprang up along the narrow 1,000-foot strip of land just north of East Phillips Park.

By Jim Walsh

The Monday afternoon sun beat down hard on the intersection of Hiawatha and Cedar Avenues, as the estimated 300 citizens of the largest homeless encampment in state history began another week of living in the shade of the Little Earth housing complex.
Three months ago, the first tent sprang up along the narrow 1,000-foot strip of land just north of East Phillips Park, and at the moment 70 more sit amid an orderly array of lawn chairs, water coolers, grills, sleeping bags, laundry, pets, outhouses, police presence, and most any other amenity that makes a society a society.
Tent cities and homeless encampments have become prevalent all over America, and some cities have made sleeping in public areas a crime that local officials are starting to prosecute. Sweeps, raids, and site clearings have become common reactions to homeless encampments, but in Minneapolis, a coalition of city, county, and American Indian agencies have launched efforts to deliver housing assistance, medical care, and other services, while Mayor Jacob Frey recently promised a “full-throated effort” to find housing for everyone who needs it by the end of this month.
The poverty and despair is palpable, as is the feeling of last-chance community. The following portraits and interviews are with people who are comfortable with having their photograph taken, and people who have, in the Franklin/Hiawatha Encampment, found what most everyone wants — a tribe, if even and only a momentary one. The photos you won’t see are the ones that have not been taken, of entire families huddled together in one small tent, of people sitting in chairs holding their heads in their hands and staring at the ground in desperation, of little kids with haunted eyes, of judgmental drivers honking, of a school bus full of jeering kids, and of the looming danger that comes with nightfall.
Brianna Downwind: “This camp has a worse rep than it really is. It’s not all bad. Here, you can actually be more safe together than on the street alone. This is the face of struggle in Minneapolis right now. My mother is here, with me. My mother said it’s a shame on Minneapolis for having their own refugee camp in the heart of the south side of Minneapolis. They’ve done nothing about it. That’s shameful, it really is. People came through here shouting that the mayor of Minneapolis said that in a month everybody’s going to be arrested or moved out of here. Like, that gives everybody so much hope. That was sarcasm. We need help. This is ridiculous that all these children, all these people, are out here, and people are slowing down and honking and taking pictures but doing nothing about it.”

Chuck Warnick: “People need to know that everybody here is blessed in their own way, and we’re human beings like the rest of the people. Some of us have had unfortunate things happen to us. Some are here by choice. Choices they’ve made in their lives. Regardless, homelessness is not a disease; it’s a problem. As I stand here with you, man, if you notice these cars come by and they slow down like we’re some kind of a freak show, and a lot of the time these people just don’t understand what it’s like to struggle. Most every one of us has eaten out of a garbage can because we’re hungry. It’s a blessing that we’re all here, we all came together and stood together and we’re going to see this thing through and make sure we’re going to eat every day. Different people come here and donate their time and food and I just want to say thank God.
“We can all always find things we don’t have. When I don’t have money, I’ll hold a sign for money, and I remember a car came up to me one time and I said to the lady, ‘You look very nice, where are you coming from?’ She said, ‘I’m coming from the hospital, my son is in a coma, will you say a prayer for him?’ Right then as I said the prayer, I thought about my daughter, and that she’s healthy, and even though I don’t have any family here, most of these people are my associates, some are friends but it’s hard to come by friends. … What I’m getting to is I don’t have anything, man. What you see is what I have on, OK? But my daughter’s healthy, and what else can I ask for? I mean, her son’s in a coma and I’m bitching because I don’t have a house to sleep in? I tell you right now, if I had a house for my life, I’d give it to my kid.”

Angela Bowen: “I’m the main med tent. I’ve been here six weeks. I take care of the Narcan people and I carry the needles and do the needle exchange. I have 20 years’ experience doing this. I’ve had 15 (drug addicts) and I’ve saved 14. I’ve got it all, the needles, the [pamphlets] to teach people to get on the methadone program. I’ve been on the methadone program for six years. We saved a little old lady here the other night. We smudge the [area], and I tell you one night we didn’t smudge, and you could really feel it. My stepdad’s wake is today, and I need to go to that later. He was a medicine man.”

Fabian Jones: “I work with Natives Against Heroin. We are working at being helpers and our main work is to be committed to listening and talking to them, and just letting them know that we do care. Everybody here struggles. I have struggled with addiction, but I and everybody here is here to help, and everybody here knows it.”

James Allen Cross, Sr. : “I’m the founder of Natives Against Heroin. We started in ’15 as a talking circle, and last year started as a movement. It’s been very successful, and a force for positivity and recovery and they actually see people who care. You know, we don’t just talk about it, we do action.”

Greg Franson: “I volunteer here. I stop fights, I do security, I hand out food, pass out things that are donated, get people into Rule 25s — everything you can think of that can help our people. First and foremost, the public needs to know that all Indians are not drunks, or dope addicts. Everybody down here is not on drugs or drinking. We need to bring our culture back, and we need more people to realize what our culture is. Our culture isn’t just ceremonies. Our ways used to be that everyone was family, and that’s kind of why everybody is here. It’s mainly what it’s really all about. It wouldn’t be this way if everybody was scattered around, and that’s the thing: Our people have been taught through generation to generation that you stay with your people and you will be OK. It doesn’t matter what tribe you’re from or where you’re from, our people have always been caring.
“We’ve been put on reservations forever, and through our ways it’s been passed down from generation to generation that you’re to treat people in a good way, so that’s what we try to do. That’s why I volunteer my time, is to give back. I was an addict, and I’ve been sober for a while now, and this is my way of giving back. I could’ve been one of them. I live in a sober house, so technically I am homeless, and it’s OK. It’s better than living down here.”

“My name is Ogichidaa. It means ‘warrior’ in Ojibwe. This is my first day here. I’m pitching a tent now. It seems like they keep pushing us away and out from everywhere. You go to try and seek shelter somewhere and warmth and whatnot and it’s like, ‘You can’t be here’ to a point where you feel trapped. They’ll pull up when it’s 20 below outside and say, ‘You’ve got to get moving on,’ but you’re just trying to stay warm and they kick us out. I’m not sure where I’ll go when winter comes up ….”

Davonte Lambert: “I’ve been here for going on two months. It’s really nice here. It’s a good place for people to live, as long as people stay out of trouble and don’t fight. Drama is drama here, but it stays within the camp. It’s like a family. So when somebody that comes from the street comes over here, and it’s happened, where we just had a shooting two weeks ago, and the entire camp chased him out of here. It’s like a family here. Everybody’s safe here.”

John Littlewolf: “I’m here, donating and bringing supplies. I’m donating to the Native American Community Clinic and Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and then I just walked through and saw a Dollar Store down the street, and I got some Mountain Dew and some sugar cookies for a pick-me-up. This is my first time here. I was inspired by social media. I have a lot of relatives and a lot of people who have been helping out and when I saw what was happening down here, I thought I just have to do something. Something inside of me said, ‘Do anything.’ One of my friends said, ‘It doesn’t have to be anything grand. Small effort. Give some time. Give what little you can.’ I’m not a wealthy person. I’m a public servant. Just give what you can: I had today off, and I just had to come down and when I saw it, it took my breath away. I love this neighborhood, and to see this here, I hadn’t been down here in some time, and it just hit me right in my heart.”

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