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The Camp of Forgotten Natives

Mike Schock, Ph.D., LICSW, Chair, Department of Social Work Augsburg University

On my way to campus each day, I drive by the intersection of Cedar avenue and Hiawatha avenue.  It was late June, I think, when I first noticed a single tent pitched on a patch of grass along Hiawatha Avenue.  In a few days there were two, then 5 or 6 then twenty, then fifty. At first, I watched with a detached interest, where were these men and women coming from?  Why there?  I even began to appreciate the array of colorful tents.  I followed the development of this growing community as best as I could in the local newspaper. Still I was somewhat distant but curious about how they are becoming more than just people living on the street.

Then something began to happen.  A community was emerging, support was focused on the health and medical needs or the social and behavioral needs of those whose only shelter was the east facing wall and a small nylon mountain tent.  Then came the casual conversations among friends and colleagues, the hope that the city or county would work to eliminate this new community of folks.  Find them housing!  Normal responses, I suppose.  But disturbing, none the less.

Other cities have taken more drastic action. Responses that attempt to label and eliminate tent cities as public health problems. First through the use of cities ordinances used to move people along, then using police to arrest those who refused the brutish persuasion of city officials.  In fact, our mayor even made the promise to eliminate the tent community by September (Serres, C. & Jany, L., 2018).

There is another story to be told here, one of community cohesion and empowerment.  At first, I began to notice mobile toilets and a central water station. Folks from Little Earth and Native social service agencies were mobilizing to support their neighbors. I learned that some of the members of the tent community were mobilizing to clean up the area, and to watch out for one another.  A real community was developing.  And as this community was moving from being invisible to being visible, disconnected to being connected, this transition attracted more political attention and with that, more organizations participating in their community by providing supportive policing, needed health care, healthy food, and even when requested searches for affordable housing.

As fall is upon us and as winter approaches, my hope is that we as a community, the city and metro area are able to creatively imagine solutions that respects the ‘community’ that has emerged, the social networks that are still being forged, while at the same time building affordable and stable housing.  Providing shelter and honoring community networks. Those who created the tent community are teaching us again that there should not be tradeoffs here, that we can imagine and build housing for all designed to nurture interdependence and community.

Oh, and one final word on what to do with the tent community on Hiawatha Avenue.  Mayor Frey has reminded us that the land? “It’s Dakota property” after all. (Serres, C. (2018, September 4).

Serres, C. (2018, September 4). Mpls opens arms to homeless camp, Star Tribune, p. A1.

Serres, C. & Jany, L., (2018, August 24). Minneapolis leaders unveil action plan for growing homeless encampment, Star Tribune, p. L1.


I asked Caitlin Hozeny Leinard, MSW, LGSW to contribute to this blog post.  Caitlin graduated from the MSW program in 2016.  She was worked extensively with the community living on the streets, those without affordable shelter.  Below are her comments on the tent community in South Minneapolis:

Many people have asked me what I think about the Hiawatha Camp/The Camp of Forgotten Natives because they know of my experience as a street outreach worker and housing case manager. I am not an expert and I do not pretend to know what it is like to live outside. These are only my observations based on my time in the field. The frustrating thing about this camp is also the most important thing about it: its visibility. It makes me angry that even though many (if not all) of the people staying at the Hiawatha Camp were sleeping outside prior to staying there, their homelessness went largely unnoticed before their tents became visible. Homelessness was not deemed “a crisis” despite consistent pleas and warnings from advocates working with those who are experiencing homelessness that things are getting worse. We have been saying that there is not affordable housing and the shelters are full. Therefore, the visibility of the camp has actually brought homelessness to the forefront of peoples’ minds, including elected officials. However, this does not mean that everyone should flock to the camp to help.

Please be intentional about listening to the community and let them tell you want they want and need. There are already outreach workers at the camp daily to provide access to services, referrals, and resources. Remember, homelessness is larger than the one camp that you are able to see. There are many things you can do to address homelessness on a systemic level. Talk to your elected officials and ask what they are doing to end homelessness. Urge them to consider more shelter beds. Even though it is unpopular to suggest more shelter beds because shelter can be seen as a Band-Aid approach, the reality is that the weather is still nice and the shelters are already full. Additionally, talk to your elected officials about making shelters safe and dignified so that more people feel comfortable staying in them. Educate yourself about the resources in your community and inform your elected officials of what is missing. Ask your state legislators to support funding for affordable housing. Urge them to consider housing options that do not break up communities. Donate to organizations that employ street outreach workers and have a mission to end homelessness. Volunteer with an organization that can train you to work empathetically and effectively with people who are homeless. Be compassionate, but also informed, about the ways that you can truly make a difference to end homelessness.

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