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The Wall of Forgotten Natives: Inside Minneapolis’ largest homeless encampment

Trinity “Tiny Bree” Bellanger

Trinity “Tiny Bree” Bellanger Emily Utne

I. ‘It’s like the dam broke’

A ribbon of exhaust trails traffic down Hiawatha Avenue. Drivers with windows cracked in the late summer heat stare at the line of tents staked taut across the strip of lawn between a retaining wall and the road. Heads turn, hands gesture.

“It’s embarrassing for me to be here,” says T.T. as she hugs a knee to her chest on a welcome mat woven from plastic bags at the mouth of her tent. “This is the lowest I’ve ever been in my life.”

She’s 33 years old, the familial backbone to three young daughters, her aging parents, and a 26-year-old sister with cerebral palsy. All seven live together beneath a blue canvas canopy, sleeping in a nest of bedding and clothes arranged so neatly that the narrow dome feels spacious. (T.T. asked not to be identified for fear Child Protection would come for her children.)

Nine months ago, she had an apartment near Bossen Field Park. Winter showers filled the building with the reek of microbial rot. While workers dredged floor-to-ceiling curtains of black mold, she searched for a new home.

She hoped the hunt would take no more than a month. Her boyfriend has worked maintenance for the Park Board, but landlords wanted to see higher household incomes, smaller families, and double deposits. Dozens of $50 application fees went down the drain.

Volunteers with Natives Against Heroin are on site daily helping out.

Volunteers with Natives Against Heroin are on site daily helping out. Emily Utne

They lived out of her boyfriend’s van, burning money circling the city, trying to make themselves elusive in plain sight. Earlier this summer they drove past the growing homeless encampment at Cedar and Hiawatha Avenues. They heard it nicknamed “Drug City” and “Heroin Alley.”

It wasn’t until T.T. fought with her boyfriend—and he kicked them all out onto Portland Avenue—that she turned to the camp as a last resort. It was the final week of August, when the tents already numbered 150.

“I never imagined that I would be here, on a curb with my kids,” she says as her eyes well. “Because that’s basically what it is. It’s a curb. And I never imagined that so many people would make me feel so at home, on this curb. And that they would help, you know?”

She’d envisioned wild nights, an open-air drug market, and flowing drink. Instead, their first twilight in camp was largely still. As the sun fell from the sky, the rainbow hillside phased into a coil of black shells zipped tight. Voices ebbed to a rolling whisper.

A drifter stopped in her doorway, drawn to T.T.’s perpetually smiling sister. As he tried to hit on her, the family screamed for help. People ran from every direction to chase the man into the night.

Staying in camp is better than being on their own, T.T. says. Protection and a place to lay her head without fear of police shining flashlights through the windshield were what she needed to breathe.

Others here used to sleep in abandoned houses and the doorways of businesses on Bloomington Avenue. They rode trains, panhandled at Suicide Hill in Loring Park, and camped beneath bridges along the Midtown Greenway and I-94, until recent rains forced giant spiders out of the concrete. Still they prefer the streets to shelters, which are frequently haunted by traffickers and drug dealers, and where overcrowding begets theft and high tempers.

For outreach workers who serve the homeless, Minneapolis’ largest-ever homeless camp makes it easier to distribute syringes, administer Naloxone, and enlist people in housing and drug treatment programs.

During a press conference at the American Indian Center—to which camp residents were not invited—Mayor Jacob Frey said he wanted the Wall cleared by September 30, in favor of a roof over everyone's heads. As a result, the camp nearly doubled in size.

Yet no one who has been chronically homeless, or has worked with them, believed Frey can deliver. Not in 2018, when the Metropolitan Council considers a $1,400 one-bedroom “affordable housing.”

Camp residents earn at most just one-third of the area’s median income. The vacancy rate for the housing they can actually afford is less than 1 percent.

Meanwhile, the city Public Housing Authority has a years-long waiting list. Nonprofit developers reject felons. There’s no telling when units might become available, so social workers know better than to give estimates.

“This isn’t a pond anymore,” says Joy Friedman of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “It’s like the dam broke and it’s turned into an ocean. It’s an ocean of just trauma and revictimization, and you see no land.

“I’m looking for the land to tell them just swim to that island, but I can’t even throw a life raft or a buoy. I can throw a granola bar though, and say at least I know you ate for a moment.”

II. Pushed from the projects

Caryn Pachecho

Caryn Pachecho

Residents call the encampment the Wall of Forgotten Natives. It sits in the heart of Minneapolis’ Native American community, cradled between the American Indian Center, All Nations Church, and the Anishinabe Wakiagun group home for alcoholics who have had at least 20 trips to detox within three years. The only apartments available for rent nearby are going for more than $900 for a studio.

Then there’s Little Earth, the only Native preference Section 8 project in the nation, which looms just behind the Wall. Several residents say it was their last stable home before they were forced to the streets.

Ten years ago, 56-year-old Caryn Pachecho was divorced, living alone in Seattle, and working as an Indian Health Board patient advocate for $30 an hour. Then she got a call. Her adult daughter, Jade, who was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 11, was so sick she had to be airlifted from the Red Lake reservation to a hospital in Grand Forks. Surgeons amputated part of her foot.

Pachecho quit her job and flew home to Minnesota. Mother and daughter moved to Maplewood, where they could be closer to endocrinology and dialysis specialists. Jade had a boyfriend and became pregnant, which can imperil women with Type 1 diabetes. She lost her vision overnight. Pachecho’s granddaughter Jasmine was born six weeks early following an emergency C-section.

Jade needed around-the-clock aid. Pachecho became her personal care assistant, earning about $11 an hour from the state. They were destitute.

When Jade rose to the top of Little Earth’s waiting list in 2012, it seemed their luck had finally turned around. Instead, the housing manager took immediate issue with the women’s many visitors, Pachecho says. Her daughter was house-bound. Family and friends were always coming and going, but Little Earth accused them of dealing drugs, she says.

Then Jade died at 32. She never woke up from a surgery to replace a stent in her temple.

Ezra Watson

Ezra Watson

Little Earth wanted Pachecho to move from the townhomes to the apartments. They were the rougher section of the projects, seat of some of the highest overdose rates in Hennepin County, where six people were shot in May. Pachecho refused. Little Earth locked her out, dumping her belongings in the trash.

Pachecho sent her granddaughter to live with her father in Richfield, then took up residence at the Wall, where her cash and IDs were stolen, and her 17-year-old dog was abducted.

“This is not my life,” she says. “I haven’t seen my granddaughter in three weeks. My dog is gone. My house is gone. This is everything I own.”

She spends her time sitting in a lawn chair, paging through Game of Thrones—an escape—while she guards what she has left.

Just then Captain Jack Sparrow, a perennial mayoral candidate, delivers a packet of information. It lays out a reductive theory of how tiny houses and community gardens could solve homelessness in Minneapolis. She’s mildly amused by the Disney pirate’s business card stapled to the front.

At the southernmost end of the Wall lives 29-year-old Ashley Murphy, once Pachecho’s neighbor in Little Earth. She wears a sweat-slicked ponytail and a Subway T-shirt from a former job.

Murphy provoked Little Earth’s ire last July, when she invited her homeless sister-in-law to stay. The sister-in-law sparred with neighbors in shouting matches that frequently brought police to their doorstep. The housing manager also accused Murphy of getting high in front of her daughters, she says. Only by passing several urine analyses did she avoid losing them to Child Protection.

Todd Weldon

Todd Weldon

Murphy begged Little Earth to let her leave voluntarily. An eviction would permanently mar her record. Little Earth was unmoved. The family has been on the streets ever since.

They backpacked for about a year, swinging through Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota, sometimes staying with relatives while she cleaned Marriott Hotels in return for discount lodging. They just returned to Minneapolis in August.

Murphy sought entry to Mary Jo’s family shelter downtown. But the corners of her bunk beds were spotted with foul-smelling black scum, signs of a potential bedbug infestation, she says. She chose to take her chances at the Wall.

In the mornings she showers at Catholic Charities Opportunity Center, then clocks in to work at a hotel she won’t name. After work, she searches for an apartment.

“I’m a hard worker. When you show that to your employers, they will hire you back,” Murphy says confidently. “I tell everybody this is just a state of mind. Make it temporary. Bust your ass.”

As she speaks, wailing emits from the tent next door. An agitated young woman has been awake for several days in a row. Her boyfriend screams at her to get out.

A security volunteer, bare-chested but for a fluorescent yellow vest, crouches to peer inside. He directs the woman to a folding chair beside the Natives Against Heroin tent in the center of the camp. There she sits, breathing deep, trembling breaths, as she wipes her hair back from a tear-streaked face and tries to smoke a cigarette.

Chanzi Dupris

Chanzi Dupris

III. ‘That poison from the cities’

On a sweltering morning just before Labor Day, the Wall is slow to stir. Volunteers prepare a spread of Starbucks coffee and pastry crumble. It’s gone after only a handful have eaten.

Some days donations are abundant. Residents have their pick of shopping carts full of Jimmy John’s subs, salads, and fresh fruit. Other times volunteers must ration, delivering food and water to the families with children and seniors gathered on the camp’s north end before anyone else may eat.

Of the dizzying collage of street outreach workers, volunteer nurses, and city public works employees who flow through the Wall emptying trash bins, cleaning portable toilets, and collecting used needles, one group maintains a constant presence: Natives Against Heroin. (“Just say nah.”)

It was founded by 53-year-old James Allen Cross, a long-limbed, hawk-eyed man who emerged from 22 years in federal prison with a repugnance for the drugs he once sold to his own people. He prowls the camp, talking addicts down from hallucinations and chasing off riffraff who cruise by shouting disparaging things about Native Americans, provoking the young men to fight.

He wants to make sure the area stays neat. When outsiders look closely, they’ll see Native people living in tidy rows, keeping the lawn clean even when they have little else.

The law of the camp is NAH’s to enforce. Users receive the same sanctuary as everyone else, but traffickers get the boot. The group has no qualms about using Facebook to shame drug dealers for trucking “that poison from the cities” to the reservations up north.

“Not everybody here is on drugs—at all—but there are a lot of people that do drugs,” says Cross’ brother, Greg Franson, gesturing to a tent where a skeletal silhouette raises a syringe to the light. “Some of them are doing drugs because they’re here. Our Native pride, we call it, doesn’t feel good living in a tent.

“To most people, this is a disgrace. They drive by and say, ‘Look at those damn Indians.’ It’s hard having to police our own, you know what I’m saying? But if we don’t do it, this would be crazy.”

A tremendous effort goes into lightening the mood. There’s jocular “John John” Martin, limping on a boot from getting shot at Little Earth, who has hugs for everyone destined to cross his path. And Fabian Jones, who was homeless 10 years prior to recently entering residential group housing, encouraging hope with his example.

“I hear the ladies call you ‘Meals on Wheels!’” Cross teases a grandfather rolling by in a wheelchair.

At lunch, Cross triumphantly drives down the sidewalk that runs through camp, 50 pizzas stuffed in his back seat. Kids ride scooters alongside.

Twenty-nine-year-old Ezra Watson lives with a different kind of hunger. He’s been on his own since he turned 18, jettisoned from his mother’s house to fend for himself without much preparation for adulthood. He got his first felony for a burglary at 22. It’s shadowed his every attempt to find a job or an apartment.

Life got serious when his daughter was born four years ago. He realized he had to show up. Watson found work washing dishes at the Big Bowl Chinese Express in Golden Valley and Edina, scrubbing his way from $9.50 an hour to $10.25 over four years. He couch-hopped with friends, his daughter—and later a son—by his side.

“The only thing I’ve been able to do consistently is work. That’s never been a problem,” Watson says, chewing on a pineapple slice from a corner store fruit cup. “Everything else has been in disarray.”

Child Protection accused him of abuse. Watson denies it. Physicians found no evidence, he says, but the kids wound up in foster care nevertheless. Soon after he fell to Percocet, and eventually heroin. Driftless with depression, obsessed with chasing highs, he quit his job. It’s been a long time since he’s seen his children.

Watson says he gave up heroin for about 30 days last December after his girlfriend was arrested on an old warrant. He resumed using upon her release.

“We’re what you’d call co-dependent users,” he says matter-of-factly. “When she was in jail, that’s when I got a chance to do what I wanted to do, which was to remain sober. I know if I did it then, I could do it now. It’s just that now it’s a little bit harder. It’s like a monkey on my back.”

Camping at the Wall allows him to remove himself from friends with destructive impulses. Others visit nearly every day, encouraging him to seek treatment. It gives him hope.

Todd Weldon, 48, has every reason to hate heroin just as much. His eldest son overdosed on July 1. His girlfriend struggles with addiction as well. He arrived in camp after spending the winter in an abandoned garage off Lake Street.

“I pray every night that she can get over it, because she’s not the same.... It’s getting to that point where I’m gonna have to make a decision. But my word is my loyalty. And I gave her my word that I would stick by her, that I would be there.”

Weldon longs for the “laid-back life”: a comfortable bed in a private room, where he needn’t worry about being robbed. He thinks it’s wrong for shelters to turn a man away when it’s 10 degrees below, even if he fails the breathalyzer at the door.

People feel like they have nothing to live for, much less get clean for, when they’re left to the streets so long they can no longer fathom a better life, he says.

He has a dark and distant look about him, a permanent scowl that comes with the pain in his thickly bandaged hand, recently infected from a gash running nail to knuckle. He doesn’t remember how it happened.

IV. ‘It’s not like I’ve forgotten’

The Tuesday after Labor Day, a big tent with a peppermint top was erected across East Franklin Avenue, on the lawn of the American Indian Community Development Corporation. It’s where county nurses provide bare-bones triage. Three mobile showers are parked alongside.

Most everybody at the Wall is getting assessed for shelter programs. The county’s Office to End Homelessness is responsible for matching people to housing. Once units become available, outreach workers are sent to connect the lucky chosen. It’s helpful to have so many of Minneapolis’ homeless in one place.

But all many residents know is they’ve signed up with somebody carrying a clipboard, and it’s been weeks without follow-up. As winter looms, city officials have suggested temporarily relocating everyone to vacant warehouses, or seting up heated tents. People still worry the camp will be razed with or without meaningful help.

Trinity “Tiny Bree” Bellanger is proud to say she’s trying to survive on her own. She’s 18, with long black hair, thick eyeliner, and skinny jeans fashionably cut. Her dad’s in prison for something he claims he didn’t do. Her mom moved to Wisconsin after leaving her with her grandmother in White Earth when she was 10 months old.

She’s given her doting grandmother the runaround all her life, Bellanger says. At 13 she got caught with marijuana and cigarettes at school, and was locked up in the Circle Back Center for juvenile offenders with chemical dependency problems. When her sister died two years ago from an apparent overdose, Bellanger turned to cocaine, meth, and heroin to silence the grief.

There was nothing else for her to do on the reservation, she says. So she moved to Minneapolis, where she avoids hard drugs, unwilling to take the chance they could be cut with something deadly.

Two months ago she came to the encampment when there were just four tents. A warrant for fighting caught up with her, leading to 30 days in jail. She’s determined to show her family she can do better.

“I wanna show them I can sober up, get my own apartment, get a job, go back to school. Growing up, I always wanted to be an Ojibwe teacher, because I know how to bead, talk some of the language, and I know a little bit about the history. Because I know my culture is dying, as you can see. I’m still young. There would be hope if I could get my life situated out here in the streets.”

She empties her backpack of a morass of beaded jewelry, untangling each piece to show its delicate craftsmanship—thunderbird earrings, kaleidoscope medallions.

A 4-year-old girl in a cotton candy Trolls shirt sits in the long grass by the road, full of curiosity. She’s a cheeky orb of joy, all touch, no words. Her name is Chanzi, and she and her mother, Mayda Dupris, were also among the Wall’s first residents.

The Dupris had a house in Sioux Falls not long ago. But Mayda’s ex-husband was an alcoholic. He cheated on her with her sister, so she beat him up. She was convicted of simple assault and sentenced to probation. Her public defender advised her to leave South Dakota.

Mother and daughter moved to the People Serving People shelter in downtown Minneapolis. If they stayed 45 days, they would become eligible for a temporary, reduced-rate apartment.

It wasn’t easy. Other children hit Chanzi at school, and their parents antagonized Mayda through breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she says. There was friction in the hallways, and they nearly came to blows in an elevator. Mayda chose to leave rather than risk going to jail again.

She turned to the Wall. But eventually, People Serving People came through. Mayda was rewarded for her sobriety and felony-free record with a small apartment near Portland and Franklin avenues. She’ll have a year to establish a good rental and employment history—stepping stones to finding permanent housing on her own.

Two days after moving into their new home, Mayda and Chanzi are back at the Wall, visiting the friends they made at the lowest point of their lives.

“I just come back to see whoever I know, say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a house. Come over if you wanna cook something, if you wanna take a shower, wash your clothes.’ It’s not like I’ve forgotten.”

She does this for the memory of her grandfather, a son of the South Dakota Dupris credited with saving the Black Hills’ buffalo from extinction at the turn of the century. Their work survives in an enduring herd at Custer State Park.

“He always told me, ‘This could be your family,’” Mayda says, blinking through tears as she motions an open palm across the camp. “’When you have your home, when you sit down, offer them to come in.’”

For information on how you can help, visit www.franklinhiawathacamp.org.