By Ward 10 Councilmember Aisha Chughtai
Too many of our neighbors are hurting and we cannot look away. The sheer number of people in our community who lack shelter, housing, or housing security is a stain on our city. Each one of them is a policy failure and we must do something about it. Recently, an encampment down the street grew to over 30+ tents, and a secondary encampment formed right in my backyard. I spent much of the day at these encampments as they were evicted by the City and MnDOT with the very few social service providers helping my neighbors in tents. Conversations with those scrambling to pack up their belongings stood out to me.
First, no one knew where they were going next. This is a common experience among residents at the countless encampment evictions (referred to by the City as closures) I’ve witnessed firsthand. Even when residents are ready to go to an overnight shelter, they don’t know if a bed is available to them because the coordinated shelter entry hotline isn’t open until hours after they’re forced to leave. This — along with a lack of storage for personal belongings as overnight shelters don’t have space to store more belongings than a small locker allows for, much less items like blankets or a tent — are the easiest-to-address factors contributing to the formation of new encampments.
Second, every person staying in my backyard — all of whom were Black or Indigenous — wanted a permanent home. They wanted support, whether it was addiction treatment, navigating government services like food stamps, or something else. Every person had been out on the streets for years, cycling between social workers and losing contact with their caseworker each time they experienced displacement.
Too many of us are taught from a young age that the people we see on the streets are not worthy of our empathy. We’re told that we shouldn’t help because our unhoused neighbors will somehow squander that help — that they will use our assistance to buy alcohol, use any offer of shelter as a place to use drugs, or simply take from us if we dare to get too close to them. We are taught that those living without homes are there because of some personal failing on their part, that they made bad choices, or that they deserve their fate. These assumptions are not only lazy but they deny the humanity of those that share our neighborhoods.
With everything we’re taught, it’s no surprise that we do not respond with basic humanity to our neighbors’ struggles. But make no mistake — this is a problem we can solve. We have the resources. We know the answers. All it takes is the political will to do the right thing for everyone in our community. Currently, there are less than 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Hennepin County, less than 500 of whom are living outside. Though not all of these individuals live in Minneapolis, we know the vast majority do. If we choose not to look away and instead respond with kindness, we can end housing insecurity in our community.
We know that people experiencing any spectrum of homelessness in Minneapolis are disproportionately from low income communities, and a majority of them are Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and youth. We can see how we are failing people through a rigid and inadequate shelter system, limited transitional housing options, and a lack of deeply affordable housing options. But there are solutions for all these failings.
We have to begin by affirming that everyone in our community has value. That starts with an acknowledgement that housing is a human right, even and especially for those living in encampments. The City’s response under Mayor Frey has been cruel, needlessly expensive, and rooted in the callous assumption that the best response is simply to hide the siblings that need our help. When the City clears an encampment, the first response is to throw people’s every worldly possession into a dumpster — nevermind that a person cannot sign a lease or start a job without a ID. Each time the City clears out these communities they are sending someone’s friend or partner or child back to the shadows so no one has to look at them. We are not just clearing space for park access, we are removing connections to lifesaving resources we all should expect in the 21st century like access to very basic healthcare, running water, and food. We’re turning a blind eye to the reality that the risk of death is 3 times higher for those who’ve experienced homelessness compared to those who haven’t, and 5 times higher for Native American people experiencing homelessness.
The humane response is to provide access to clean water, restrooms, needle disposal, and basic sanitary medical supplies at minimal cost — addressing both the dire conditions of the unhoused and the public health concerns of both encampments and the broader community. However, over and over again, the Mayor chooses destruction and cruelty. We have the resources to do better and we owe it to our community to make it a priority. We need a real, written encampment response policy that provides a public health response, gives residents sufficient notice when an eviction is planned, and coordinates services at the point of contact across levels of government.
We can do so much more though. We can build a city that looks out for everyone and treats everybody with the dignity and respect they deserve. We do need to acknowledge root causes of housing insecurity. Often it starts with a lack of affordable housing options in the city. And, yes, it is often compounded by addiction and other mental health struggles. But people will not get the help that they need or stop self-medicating if we shame them or simply close our eyes to the challenges they face.
Our response has to start with harm reduction, because despite homeless individuals making up 1 in 10 overdose deaths, overdose is the leading cause of death among our community’s unhoused population. Too many people are turned away from our shelter system because we believe that their addiction and mental health issues are a personal failing not a medical challenge. Our shelter and supportive housing system must include safe-use sites and support services for the care people need. Avivo Village is a great example. The indoor tiny home shelter provides a supportive, service-rich environment for neighbors facing some of our greatest housing challenges. Since opening their doors just under 3 years ago, they have served 412 individuals, moved 146 into permanent housing (52% of whom are Native American), and reversed 171 overdoses.
One of the reasons unhoused residents are willing and able to come to Avivo is because they also provide a secure place for the residents staying there to store their belongings. Too many of our city’s residents facing housing insecurity also face insecurity in simply keeping their possessions. Whether it is an encampment sweep or needing to leave their belongings behind when they head to an overnight shelter, too many of our most at-risk residents cannot hold on to the few things they own. We need to institute a secure storage system for our community that meets people where they are at and allows them to take full advantage of the services that are available through social service providers.
The City must return to the Navigation Center model that we briefly embraced after the encampment crisis first began with the Wall of Forgotten Natives in 2018. While the original goal was temporary shelter to help people move from a specific camp for the winter and providing access to the support services needed to become more secure in future housing, the transition it provided to dozens of individuals and families became indispensable. Everyone in this city deserves to know that, if the worst should happen, there is a central location they can go to stay safe and access the assistance they need to get back on their feet.
We also need to expand the capacity of our emergency shelter and supportive housing system, both in services and bed numbers. There are any number of properties that the city can acquire and fold in to the county shelter system. We have the resources to provide for everyone in our community that needs it.
Make no mistake, homelessness and housing insecurity is a problem that we can solve. We are a city of abundance and excluding people from that is a policy choice that our city has embarrassingly made for far too long. Mayor Frey pledged in 2017 to end homelessness within five years, but has made little progress toward that campaign promise. The only reason that his administration still hasn’t done so is because he has flatly chosen not to. It’s time to end the policy failure that we see in every one of our unhoused neighbors. If Mayor Frey is unwilling or unable to lead on caring for our siblings facing homelessness, the City Council must step up and do it for him.