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A Beacon Of Hope To The Unhoused Faces Eviction

Minneapolis, MN — Camp Nenookaasi is throwing the subject of Minneapolis’ encampment policies into the spotlight again as it faces eviction on December 19. The camp’s supporters are waging the latest skirmish in a longer fight between the city’s prohibition of encampments and those who claim that allowing encampments to remain intact is the most humane approach to the issue, as well as a crucial first step toward getting people into stable housing and recovery programs.

On Dec. 8, a group of activists arrived at Mayor Jacob Frey’s office to deliver an eviction notice to his door, symbolically evicting him from the city in an attempt to draw his attention to the issue and sway his decision to further displace the unhoused.

Encampment Defenders Storm Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s Office from Unicorn Riot on Vimeo.

Camp Nenookaasi, which occupies an empty lot of city property in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis, was created in the days after the camp at the ‘Wall of Forgotten Natives’ was evicted in August. The camp’s organizers and residents, many of whom were also at the Wall encampment, have built it on the same principles of harm reduction and a focus on providing culturally relevant pathways to housing and addiction recovery for residents, the majority of whom are Indigenous. 

The Wall encampment lasted for one week before state troopers came to clear it away. Nenookaasi has been operating for 116 days and counting.

Christin Crabtree, an organizer of Camp Nenookaasi, said that, similarly to statements made at the Wall encampment, there is a dual purpose of maintaining the camp: to provide a safe, steady place for unhoused neighbors to live while they get connected to families or services and to take a stand against the sweeps, proving to the city that there is a better solution than bouncing people from camp to camp. “We really wanted to demonstrate the direct impact that city practices have that perpetuate the conditions that result in homelessness in the first place,” Crabtree said.

All through the fall, volunteers worked to outfit the camp for winter. There are over a dozen yurts with wood-burning stoves inside, regular meal and supply deliveries from local nonprofits and mutual aid networks, and hard-won trash collection and portable toilet services provided by the city. Organizers report there have been zero deaths from overdoses thus far at Nenookaasi, which Crabtree attributed not to any policies against drug use, but to the resources available to those who are using.

The city was originally prepared to evict the camp on December 14, but announced Monday that the action would be postponed until December 19. Organizers sent a letter in response, arguing that five days is not a long enough extension to find alternatives for residents. “We don’t want to leave the land that we’re on until everybody’s housed or until we have a safe place to go,” Crabtree said.

Jennessey Roberts had been living on the streets of Minneapolis for 13 years when organizer Nicole Mason found her near the old Wall encampment this summer and offered her a meal and a spot at the camp. She pitched a tent at Nenookaasi and says she found more than a place to sleep.

At Nenookaasi, she said,“I gained stability and I learned a routine. I never really had a routine. I was everywhere in life. I would just do everything at the last minute.”What’s more, she said, “I felt a sense of belonging.”

With the help of camp organizers and the Hennepin County Streets to Housing team, Roberts completed an application for a subsidized apartment unit, which she moved into last week.

Roberts’ story is not unique. In the three months of its existence, 74 people have left Camp Nenookaasi for permanent housing, organizers say, and 52 more have applications pending approval in the coming days.

“All these different agencies that work with our unhoused neighbors are able to stay in touch with their clients because it takes a long time to get into housing. Part of why we’ve been successful is because we’ve been able to stay in one place,” Crabtree said.

Roberts, a member of the Red Lake Nation, said that even after finding an apartment, she comes back often to cook and care for her community still left in the camp. She said, “One of the reasons why I was here [at Nenookaasi] is because I was suffering from loneliness and depression. I don’t want to be in that state again because I learned how to overcome it being here. That’s the only thing I fear. It is hard to adjust when you’re so used to living in the street and in tents and all that. When you do have a home, you feel so wrong, almost, for being there because your people are still out here.”

Even with all the residents finding their way out of homelessness, every time someone leaves the camp for more permanent housing, someone else takes their place. There are 186 residents of Camp Nenookaasi at last count, a number that has remained more or less steady since the camp’s beginnings. According to data collected by the city, Nenookaasi is one of 46 active encampments across Minneapolis (at the time of this article’s publication), which frequently get cleared and re-established as residents shuffle between camps and shelters in search of a safe resting place.

The camp’s organizers anticipated an eviction notice eventually, but Crabtree said, “we tried to create conditions that would make it more challenging for them to do so.”

She said that the camp is set up on city property on purpose — as opposed to the Wall encampment, where the Minnesota Department of Transportation owns the land — because they thought there would be a slower and milder response from Minneapolis police officers than other state agencies.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice released a report of their investigation of the Minneapolis Police, which found that police engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives people of their rights.” The findings included MPD’s violent response to encampment protectors in 2021 as one of dozens of violations. “Retaliation need not rise to the level of force to offend the First Amendment,” the report said. “Any action—including a threat of harm—that would discourage the average person from exercising her right to speak or protest can constitute a violation.”

This increased scrutiny led organizers like Crabtree to believe that Minneapolis police officers would be less aggressive in their approach to the encampment and its defenders than they had been in the past.

One of the main policy goals that Nenookaasi’s supporters are pushing is for the city, county, and state to collaborate on a coordinated encampment response protocol, because they say that the different approaches between jurisdictions contradict and undermine each other.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey names affordable housing as one of his top priorities and often declares that “housing is a right,” though encampments do not qualify as a “dignified form of shelter,” per the city’s encampment response guidelines. By Minneapolis city ordinance, it is prohibited for anyone to live in a “temporary structure” on any public or private land, and all encampments will be closed in the interest of public health and safety.

The city relies on its Homeless Response Team to provide unhoused people with alternatives to encampments. The Homeless Response Team has no services of its own to offer. Its main function is to connect unhoused people to programs run by Hennepin County or private organizations.

“It makes zero sense for the city to undercut the work of the county,” Crabtree said. “The county spends all this money with all these outreach workers, the city evicts, and then outreach workers and the residents can’t find each other again. That screws everything up.”

Camp Nenookaasi has found many allies on the City Council, including Jamal Osman (Ward 6), who represents the camp’s district. “We cannot continue ignoring encampments,” Osman said to a crowd of advocates who had gathered to testify against the eviction at a public hearing on December 5.

Following the hearing, from which Mayor Frey was absent, eight councilmembers including Osman sent a letter calling on him to delay the eviction of Nenookaasi until February 16, 2024. In addition to the human impact of displacing 186 people, they claimed that eviction “will break trust in government services at a time when we need our unsheltered population to feel they can receive reliable services to access housing, treatment, and other support.”

Two days later, the City Council passed a resolution declaring unsheltered homelessness as a public health emergency. Such actions may have an effect on future policies, but the City Council does not have the authority to request or cancel evictions. That power belongs to the Mayor, who gained exclusive control over all city staff directives after the “strong mayor” system of government was implemented in 2022.

Since the eviction notice was posted on December 5, the camp’s supporters have turned up the pressure on the mayor to postpone until all the residents have found suitable housing options, as shelters are frequently at capacity. Advocates fear that if not for the camp and the basic infrastructure it currently has in place, people would fare much worse trying to survive the winter outside.

“If one of us is in a nice warm place, we all should be,” Roberts said. The group said in a statement:

“We’ve watched more and more fences go up around public benches and public walkways. We’ve watched people get moved around from spot to spot to spot. Recently we’ve watched the city reluctantly pony up resources at one encampment (Nenookaasi), just as they evict another encampment, and then declare their intentions to evict Nenookaasi after all. We watch this uneven treatment, with a steady trend toward more brutality, more inhumanity, and we say no to all that and no to evictions and Frey is the one who needs to be evicted.”

Also, in their statement the group pointed to another eviction carried out by the city last week, at an encampment in an old car wash parking lot.

A march took place on Wednesday evening from the Wall of Forgotten Natives to Camp Nenookaasi to highlight the connection between the city’s eviction policies with the history of displacement of Indigenous peoples throughout history.

“I wish them luck,” Crabtree said. “Because if we get evicted, we’ll just pop up somewhere else.”

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