NEWS

Nenookaasi, Minneapolis’ largest homeless camp, marked for closure to make way for development

The mood was bleak on Wednesday morning at the Camp Nenookaasi homeless encampment in south Minneapolis. Scraps of police tape were still tied to tent poles while people sat dumbstruck around the camp’s prayer fire. The night before, a man everyone knew as T-Bone had been shot dead in a tent.

The city had announced plans to close the encampment, though the date keeps changing. There was a sense that the killing of Tyrone J. Mohr, 45, made it that much more difficult to argue for a reprieve.

Founded this summer on a plot of long-vacant city property at E. 23rd Street and 13th Ave. S., Nenookaasi (meaning hummingbird in Ojibwe) has become the city’s largest homeless village. It supported roughly 180 occupants at its height.

Nenookaasi is an experiment in whether the dedicated management of an unsanctioned encampment could forestall neighbors’ ire long enough for the people sheltering within — many with deep mental health needs — to build trust with outreach workers.

But the volunteers are few, the government resources hard-fought and scarce. While agencies have steered dozens of the camp’s residents into housing and treatment, some return after relapsing.

Fed up with the mountains of trash that the camp produces with nowhere else to store it but the boulevard , neighbors including the Indian Health Board and Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors are urging the city to clear it.

The Indigenous Peoples Task Force, a Native organization that supports people living with HIV, wants to purchase the land for a $12 million community center. They hope to close the deal in February and start building before delays drive up borrowing and construction costs, said executive director Sharon Day. The city has promised to sell the land for a dollar and invest $1 million in COVID relief money.

“We’ve been planning this for years,” said Day. “We’ve got to start or it’ll never happen.”

Camp leaders know they can’t stay forever. Organizer Nicole Mason said the camp would be willing to move if they had another place to go.

“Give us a safe spot,” she said. “We’re not trying to keep this land at all.”

As winter fell on Camp Nenookaasi, a dozen yurts with articulated wooden frames rose up, each outfitted with a wood-burning stove. They’re windowless but warm, and most residents stay bundled up inside.

Tarps woven through the chain-link fence shield the camp from prying eyes. Residents used buckets lined with garbage bags as rudimentary toilets for months until organizers and the area’s council member, Jamal Osman, successfully hounded the city for portable privies. Neat avenues branching between the tents allow for the delivery of firewood.

The most striking difference between Nenookaasi and past encampments is the absence of needles littering the ground. To be sure, many occupants struggle with IV drug addiction — the fentanyl epidemic makes it especially hard for them to find and retain housing. But Nenookaasi’s cleanliness and rules of conduct have been the obsession of its leader, Mason.

When the Wall of Forgotten Natives mega-encampment appeared along Highway 55 in 2018, revealing the scale of homelessness in the city, Mason was there using drugs. She eventually sought treatment and became a sobriety coach, believing culturally based peer support would convince the most vulnerable people living on the streets of south Minneapolis that they could recover too.

Mason now lives at Little Earth of United Tribes but occasionally spends the night at Nenookaasi. This is when unwelcome outsiders try to get in and things can become unsafe, she said.

“I’ve really contemplated, am I in the wrong?” Mason said. “I am emotionally invested in the people. I’ve heard their stories. I’ve heard what works, what doesn’t work, what they need to succeed.”

Despite her efforts, the camp has been hard on neighbors. Day said that Indigenous Peoples Task Force residential buildings have been broken into, their employees sexually harassed, and that last week someone drilled a hole in the gas tank of the van they use to transport youth in a work readiness program.

Ray Peterson, who lives two blocks away, said strangers have stored stolen property in his yard and injected drugs on his neighbors’ front steps. Graffiti and food containers litter the Ventura Village area.

As much as he wants it to be over, “It is not enough to just close the camp and leave,” said Peterson. “Otherwise, a new camp will pop up somewhere else.”

Peterson suspects the worst actors are people who hang around Nenookaasi but aren’t welcome to stay there. He said neighbors have given up calling 911 and 311 for lack of response.

From August to December, there were about 90 calls for service about the encampment, mentioning drugs, guns and suspected overdoses. Arrests have been few. A 40-year-old was charged in August after allegedly giving police a fake name. In October, three were arrested on suspicion of impaired driving, but charges were dismissed. An investigation is still pending after a woman went into labor in October and lost the baby. Last month, a 20-year-old man was shot and injured. And on Tuesday night, two men were arrested after Mohr’s slaying.

“The decision to close the encampment has been driven by ongoing public safety and public health issues,” said city spokesperson Sarah McKenzie.

A coalition of faith leaders pleaded for more time: “Yes, there are public health and safety concerns that come along with encampments. However, those concerns remain and even are potentially exacerbated when neighbors are evicted with nowhere to go, and the connections with case managers and community they have made towards greater stability are severed.”

Gretchen Nickence, 60, credited her four months at Nenookaasi for the respite she needed to work with a housing agency and get an apartment last week.

“If it wasn’t for Nicole [Mason], I don’t know where I’d be,” she said. “She’s like a mom to us all, keeps us in line and when we need it, gives us a little bump in the right direction.”

Earlier this month, City Council members passed a symbolic resolution declaring homelessness a public health emergency. A majority of members asked the mayor to postpone Nenookaasi’s closure until mid-February. Council Member Aisha Chughtai is working on an ordinance to define what a more humane response to encampments could be.

Camp resident Melanie Hanks, 49, said she has been approved for a rent-subsidized one-bedroom apartment, and hopes one can be found before Tuesday. Dozens more are still waiting for homes, she said.

Friday afternoon, the city announced that Nenookaasi’s closure, though inevitable, would be postponed once again in order to provide a plan for those still living at the camp. The city did not disclose a new closure date.

The county’s emergency shelter reservation system opens at 10 a.m. Last Monday, all shelter beds for single men were reserved by 10:36 a.m. The next day, they were all filled by 10:46 a.m.


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