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Tent City in Minneapolis – a community biding their time for an answer we need to create by Ann Treacy
September 10, 2018, 5:15 am
Filed under: Minneapolis, St Paul

Today I went to visit the tent city on Hiawatha Ave near Cedar Ave, in Minneapolis, where people who are experiencing homelessness have set up tents. There are about 200 people staying there right now. I went with Monica, who is well acquainted with the world of homelessness, after working tirelessly in the community for decades.

I’m not as knowledgeable or experienced. Although we did visit the emerging tent city in St Paul last week.

I am tempted to start by asking what’s wrong with a community that has so many people sleeping outside in tents – or on trains or buses or anywhere but a safe bed?! Where is our humanity? But I’ll hold back and just talk about what I saw.

First thing you notice in a tent city is the sea of tents. There are dozens of them in Minneapolis. Most are setup along side a wall. Some have tarps added above as extra protection. In St Paul, I learned, that on Monday the police “red tag” the tents, which means they have been cited and will be coming down on Wednesday. Most people throw those tags away. But if your tent gets taken away, the police tell you to go to People Incorporated. When you get there, they give you a new tent. This doesn’t happen in Minneapolis.

Many people are sleeping in the tents or just hanging out. There are people of all ages and I noticed a few wheelchairs and canes. Kids are playing around the tents. I saw a tiny baby who couldn’t have been more than two months, I saw toddlers, preteens and a few teens. Kids are playing as kids do. Pretty polite but way more interested in playing with a train than anything else going on.

In Minneapolis, Natives Against Heroin seem to be hosting or managing the campsite. Those are strong terms but they are the best I have. There are two tents set up with logos from Natives Against Heroin – one includes an upside down American flag – an upside down flag being a universal sign of distress. Nearby are tables with food and clothes, which have obviously been dropped off as donations and a large pot cooking up stew. People are generous but the food can be random – a big box of bananas, homemade buns, coleslaw. From what I’ve heard and what little I’ve seen, the people who are most generous are the people closest to poverty line themselves – people who maybe know what it’s like to be hungry.

The stew was cooked by a matriarch-type with donated meat, cans of veg, cooked pasta dropped off in party-size baking tins.

There are kids asking “when is it going to be ready” just like you can hear in every house in town at this time. And once it’s ready they are happy and they know the drill – to line up like it’s a picnic buffet. The only catch with this lovely stone soup, they have bowls but no spoons. So that’s not like every house in town.

I saw one “sink” or a large barrel of water and a make-do wash up area. Mostly the area seems pretty picked up; unfortunately the city garbage cans are overflowing. Although it’s a Sunday – hopefully there’s a pick up tomorrow. No point in setting up garbage cans if the refuse isn’t collected often enough. There are also port-a-potties set up on either end of the campsite. It doesn’t feel like enough infrastructure to keep 200 people safe, clean and healthy.

There is a sense of community. There’s a shared meal or at least shared food available. But then everyone has their own space too – within their tent. Thankfully, I have never experienced homelessness but I have to imagine that having that space where you know you can stay tonight, where you can maybe even keep a few belongings must be a great relief.

There’s no sense of urgency. No one is rushing to get anywhere. Time stands still. Our intent was to be there for 30 minutes; we were there two hours. People are biding their time. Some have been drinking. Sadly a woman died of an overdose earlier this weekend. People try to escape in the ways they can. While others persevere.

The question is what will happen when the snow flies? The mayor says the tents can stay. He doesn’t want to move people to another outside area. We saw police walking their beat through the tent city. They try to be there if they are needed but also don’t want to intrude. They worry about under-reported crime; they worried about safety of the people in the tents. They don’t see an end coming soon. They suspected some people would leave when it gets cold but otherwise not much movement.

We need people outside of the tent city to care. As I said, there is no sense of urgency in the camp. These people are at the end of their tether; they cannot do long term planning. They have a place to put their head tonight and that’s all they can take on today. But kids can’t grow up this way. People can’t be their best selves. The area is ripe for an epidemic or incident that could be an even greater disaster. And it will be too cold soon. We need to step in and care – to have compassion, donate, volunteer and vote for people who care.


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