How other cities are addressing their tent cities
■ By Chris Smith / Advisory Editor
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series on homeless outside Hemet and how cities are dealing with it.
When one travels to the Midwest, as I had occasion to do recently, one thinks of wheat fields, clean parks, and The Mall of America. As it turns out, however, other parts of the country have the same challenges of crime and homelessness that Hemet does.
After using my smartphone all morning to navigate to an LAX parking lot, it died just as my plane touched down in Minneapolis. Thus I was unable to call my sister upon landing as we had arranged and was left waiting at the airport arrivals curb hoping she would check to make sure my flight had landed. Sure enough, we connected and thus began my week’s stay in an old city on the Mississippi River of 393,000 people with an overall metropolitan population that includes 3.42 million residents.
The upper echelon
My sister and brother-in-law, both graduates of Ivy League colleges, one with a PhD, are among the upper echelon of the city, as is their son, a prominent attorney who works from a marble-floored office on the 36th floor of a downtown high-rise. Needless to say, the economic strata descend from there. The couple is retired now, and volunteers to help those less fortunate, my brother-in-law teaching English-as-a-second language to foreign-born immigrants and my sister serving as a court-appointed guardian ad litem, an independent advisor to children caught up in the court system.
As a journalist, my first instinct was to pick up the local newspaper, the Minneapolis StarTribune, an award-winning daily that has so many honors to its credit that they’re beyond listing. While newspapers around the country are struggling financially, the StarTribune may be one of the few profitable ones in an industry that used to make its wealthy owners even richer. Not so today. The people who are in the business nowadays do it for love, not money.
The homeless problem
A story that caught my attention right away was one on the homeless “problem” in Minneapolis. Not just a homeless problem but a homeless encampment with some 200 residents. What was interesting was the angle on how the city is dealing with this collection of disenfranchised people who have nowhere to go. “Mpls. opens arms to homeless camp” read the headline. Unlike a few cities, which are bulldozing their homeless camps or periodically sending in the police to “clear them out” like an infestation of fire ants, Minneapolis is actually dealing with the homeless camp as if its residents are – well, people.
I decided to go have a look for myself and, with my sister driving, we navigated the streets of south Minneapolis, which my brother-in-law remarked we probably wouldn‘t be wise to do at night. Finding the camp wasn’t that easy since it was on a strip of land between a freeway and a park that was bordered by one-way streets.
The first things I see are portable toilets, and we are lucky enough to arrive just as the city is cleaning them! Whew! But, this is how they are putting their tax dollars to work. I can’t help but think how Hemet has resisted putting up portable toilets anywhere in the city leading the homeless to defecate outside in public, behind stores, and in business entryways creating a public nuisance, even a public health hazard, according to some.
Native Americans on opioids
As we carry a bag of groceries into the camp (my sister’s idea), all eyes are upon us, not in a threatening way, but more out of curiosity that someone from the outside is interested enough to actually visit and perhaps offer help. There are children playing among the tents and people are scurrying around solving problems associated with drying out following the recent rain. We are directed to a tent in the middle of the camp that has a sign that reads, “Natives Against Heroin” (NAH). Turns out it’s Native Americans who are the ones leading the effort to help the homeless, not the city. We’re greeted with a warm handshake by a tall, handsome man with a black ponytail and red NAH t-shirt whose gaze tells us he’s dealing with a big problem – and appreciates the support.
I had not heard of Natives Against Heroin before this, but apparently the opioid epidemic is severe among Native Americans and killing the parents of young Indian children at an alarming rate.
It is so bad in Oklahoma that when Rep. Markwayne Mullin holds town halls, he ends up asking how many folks “haven’t” been affected. “You won’t see a hand go up,” says Mullin, who has 19 Native American tribes in his district. “It’s devastating,” he told The Washington Times.
In separate lawsuits filed recently, the Navajo Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation say the opioids crisis is stretching their budgets and resulting in an exodus of younger members, making it difficult to hand down traditions.
There are a number of Native Americans in the homeless camp in Minneapolis, but not all. Ironically, there is a generator and tall pole with a light on top emblazoned with the Minneapolis Police logo, obviously placed there by the city to provide light in the camp after dark. The StarTribune noted that the city has no plans to clear out the camp because, with the homeless gathered in one place, it gives social workers an easier way to help those in need. When camps are destroyed, residents are scattered and harder to locate and help. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey even said that the city has no right to kick out residents of the encampment because it’s situated on land stolen from American Indians: “It’s Dakota property! “ Frey declared.
Next: The Homeless: What is “housing first”?