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Native American Nonprofits, Tribes Lead Response To Minneapolis Homeless Population


Freezing temperatures have come to Minneapolis, and that means dangerous conditions for people living in the state's largest homeless encampment. Dozens of cities across the country have similar encampments, but this one is different because of who lives there and who's leading the effort to help the people living there. Max Nesterak of Minnesota Public Radio has the story.

MAX NESTERAK, BYLINE: You can see it from the highway. There are more than 200 tents here, one pitched right next to the other along a concrete sound barrier. Angela Senogles-Bowen and her husband were some of the first to live here. She's been here going on four months and knows just about everyone.

ANGELA SENOGLES-BOWEN: Because I talk to everybody. Everybody calls me mom or auntie. I help people. I give them hats, mittens, gloves, scarves if they need socks or something to wear.

NESTERAK: Senogles-Bowen has been homeless for more than 10 years off and on but has never seen anything like this. For starters, no one here is getting evicted. That's how most cities deal with homeless encampments. But Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said they're responding differently.

JACOB FREY: To simply push people out of the site without a better option for shelter and then ultimately for housing we felt was against that value of compassion.

NESTERAK: This camp is also different because efforts are being led by tribal governments and native nonprofits. Most of the people in the encampment are Native American. They call it the Wall of Forgotten Natives. That's how Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong got involved. He offered the city an acre of land his tribe owns near the encampment to build an emergency shelter.

SAM STRONG: Thousands of our Red Lake members live in the Twin Cities area. In fact, the reason why we're putting this development here is this neighborhood has the highest concentration of Red Lake band members of anywhere off the reservation.

NESTERAK: The Red Lake Reservation is nearly 300 miles north of here, and Strong's been making the 4 1/2-hour drive regularly since the camp sprung up in August. As we tour the site, backhoes are knocking down several old industrial buildings to make way for three temporary structures which will house about 50 people each. They're calling it a navigation center.

STRONG: With the navigation site will also come all of the services that help them overcome the issues that brought about homelessness in the first place, may it be chemical dependency issues, mental health or other housing-related issues.

NESTERAK: Strong only became tribal secretary a few months ago. He's 35 years old, has an urban planning degree from Cornell but no experience building shelters. Drug use is widespread at the encampment, and there have already been three fatal overdoses since August. Strong says he understands what some here are struggling with.

STRONG: You know, when I was 16, I went to a treatment center, and it was - you know, we went to the sweat lodge. We learned more about our identity. And it gave me the path that I'm on today.

NESTERAK: Strong isn't the only Native leader responding to the encampment. A group called Natives Against Heroin patrols the camp. A Native community clinic provides medical care. A Native architect will design the shelter, and a Native-owned construction company will build it. Robert Marbut travels the country helping cities respond to homeless encampments. He says this situation is unique.

ROBERT MARBUT: Being led by the Native leadership is so unusual. In fact, I don't know that that's happened anywhere around the country. And it will actually, because it's organic from within the community, will probably be much more successful in the long run.

NESTERAK: Sam Strong has a vision for the site beyond just offering temporary shelter. Next summer, the tribe plans to break ground on an affordable housing complex with medical services and a Red Lake embassy on the first floor. It'll be called Mino-Bimaadiziwin. That's Ojibwe. It means the good life. For NPR News, I'm Max Nesterak in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Max Nesterak