No news is bad news on homeless encampment front

The state’s largest unsheltered homeless encampment appears poised to enter its fourth month and second calendar year of existence. This despite several recent dates being set by Minneapolis officials to clear the encampment. Each time those dates have been quietly postponed by Minneapolis officials without any explanation.

The encampment has been named Camp Nenookaasi (meaning “hummingbird” in Ojibwe). It has held between 100-200 unsheltered homeless throughout its existence. The majority are said to be Native Americans, many addicted to opioids. However, in my frequent visits to the area, it is clear that the residents are not just Native.

The encampment is located on several vacant lots immediately adjacent to The Indigenous People’s Task Force at East 24th St. and 13th Ave So in Minneapolis. Interestingly, the task force and nearly 30 other Native American organizations have been demanding the city and county clear the encampment as soon as possible.

These Native groups seem to recognize the obvious — that allowing hopelessly addicted and mentally ill individuals to sleep in makeshift tents and under tarps isn’t compassionate, its inhumane. Yet eight of 13 Minneapolis elected council members recently voted to attempt to force Mayor Frey to postpone clearing the encampment until mid-February, citing the need for more time and for compassion. This is for an encampment that has experienced multiple shootings, a homicide, a stillborn baby, and unrestrained drug use among other dangers and dysfunctions.

At least two dates in the past two weeks to clear the encampment have come and gone without action or an explanation from the city. The city’s Regulatory Services Department, which reports to the mayor is responsible for responding to and clearing encampments. A new director, Enrique Velazquez, was appointed in August just before the encampment appeared. It’s clear Mr. Velazquez is caught between an inept city council and a mayor seemingly unwilling to take control of the situation.

This morning I toured the area around the encampment once again. The encampment experienced the same unending freezing rain we all did over the past several days, and the wet blankets strewn over fencing confirmed that. Multiple makeshift chimneys were churning out smoke giving the neighborhood around the encampment a distinctive odor. A van was pulled up next to the encampment and a woman was up to the driver’s window in the middle of some sort of “transaction.” A man with all his possessions was sitting on the steps of a neighborhood home directly across from the encampment. He was obviously preparing a needle to shoot up with as I drove by slowly — he couldn’t have cared less. I also witnessed a man laying on the wet ground partially under a tarp directly in front of the Indigenous People’s Task Force building’s entrance. Another woman from the encampment was dragging several bags down the sidewalk apparently leaving the encampment — it was about as pitiful a sight as you could imagine.

I also observed literally dozens of public and private human services organizations to include multiple Native-based organizations, Lutheran Social Services, Missionary of Charity, and Teen Challenge within just a few blocks of the encampment. The answer doesn’t seem to be more services, but rather ensuring those in need are connected to services — involuntarily if necessary.

The city is failing its residents and its failing those who have decided that living under a tarp in the freezing rain is not yet “rock bottom.” The time has come for a new approach — one that at least considers the use of involuntary commitment for those unwilling or unable to help themselves. Even uber-liberal areas like Portland, San Francisco, and New York City have come to recognize the value of involuntary commitment.

Minnesota officials and their charges could use a dose of tough love in 2024. What do we have to lose –— more endless encampments?