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Letter on the Hiawatha Encampment


The growing camp of mostly Native people along Highway 55 in South Minneapolis is first and foremost a human tragedy.  It is the product of systemic racism and oppression of Native peoples over many centuries, a failure of the community and medical system to adequately address addiction and mental health problems, criminal peddling of opioids by drug companies and their cronies and chronic shortages in the supply of affordable housing and barriers to access the supply that does exist.


The camp has forced everyone to confront the problem on a daily basis, out in the open for all to see. In that sense the camp creates an opportunity to galvanize action by the entire community.

The truth is that there is no simple answer. Every person at the camp has a personal story that led to their being in the camp today.


Calls for simply creating more shelter beds are misguided. This fails to address the underlying causes of the current situation and undercuts our ability to create long-term solutions. Most importantly, more traditional shelter beds will not work for and will not be accepted by many of the residents of the camp.


Short-term, we need to continue to provide as humane and healthy an environment in the camp as possible prior to its closing. To date these efforts have included portable toilets, needles and sharps containers, increased outreach by public and private social service and health care agencies and provision of naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses. The American Indian Community Development Corporation (AICDC) recently added a hygiene center.  Expanded outreach, assessment and referrals to existing services will help ensure safety and maximize the number of people and families getting into appropriate long-term placements. Quick creation of low-barrier housing units is also being pursued by AICDC as a source of new capacity that could be used by some camp residents. The long-term answer is a combination of additional low barrier housing for people with chemical health problems (now in the works), shelter beds, more affordable housing and better access to chemical and mental health treatment. Creation of alternative housing with services tied to the medical system and structural changes in programs to more effectively combat the scourge of chemical and mental health problems can help mobilize healthcare resources. Additional reforms of the tenant-landlord relationship would also improve prospects for some residents. Integrating a jobs component would round out a comprehensive approach.


As a part of the broader, long-term strategy, offering a first-in-the-nation overdose prevention and expanded needle exchange center in our community would decrease harm to those using opioids and neighborhoods now afflicted with high levels of needle use.  Studies of such facilities in Canada, Europe and Australia have shown a reduction in overdoses and emergency room usage. Studies have also shown a marked reduction in stray needles within communities and a safer local environment.

This idea is not without its detractors. Some say we would be giving in to drug usage and failing to adhere to the law.  After years of waging a failed war on drugs, the nation and this community must move to a more humane and effective approach to this tragic problem by meeting people where they are.  It’s not perfect, but it offers us a chance to move away from the current tragedy of many in the camp. It’s time for a new approach.


Finally, a temporary, Native-operated Navigation Center will be needed to provide safe housing and access to services to all current camp residents who have not made the transition to a more permanent and sustainable path. A Navigation Center will give us more time to address the long-term solutions.  Tents next to a busy highway, especially in a Minnesota winter, are not acceptable. At a meeting of Native and other community leaders and providers at my home on the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, the group agreed to petition the City to make available, temporarily, a portion of the Roof Depot site in South Minneapolis to serve as the location of the Navigation Center.  The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID) subsequently endorsed the idea. I joined in signing the letter to the City urging this course. In my mind it is the best available option.


Such a facility must not be a substitute for more permanent placements. Just because the camp will no longer be visible along the highway, the residents will not have gone away. The urgency of the moment created by the camp must be sustained and acted upon by all of us. I am working closely with Native leadership and a wide array of services providers.  Hennepin County will continue to be part of the solution as we move forward to address this human and systemic tragedy.



Peter McLaughlin

Hennepin County Commissioner

District 4

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