‘A refugee camp right here in our city’

| October 10, 2018 | 0 Comments
Oscar Luna of Holy Rosary in Minneapolis hands out food

Oscar Luna of Holy Rosary in Minneapolis hands out food at an encampment for homeless people two blocks from the church Oct. 2. He was part of a group of eight young adults from the parish who came to give food and water to people living there. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Homeless, volunteers say recognizing dignity key to helping encampment residents

“Would you like a sandwich? Do you want water, too?” Emaly Torres crouched down to pass a ham and cheese sandwich through a tent’s low opening.

Torres, 18, and other members of her young adult group at Holy Rosary in Minneapolis were handing out food and bottled water to people living at the large homeless encampment at Franklin and Hiawatha Avenues in Minneapolis. The camp is two blocks from their church.

It was after sunset, and most of the camp’s residents had retreated to their tents for the night. Those outside were talking quietly; some huddled near a fire that burned along a sidewalk, the camp’s main thoroughfare. The air smelled like woodsmoke and dry leaves as the Holy Rosary group walked from one end of the camp to the other, the downtown skyline visible beyond them.

Laura Carpio, 29, said that she was used to seeing homeless encampments like that when she lived in Costa Rica. When she immigrated four years ago, she didn’t expect to see that kind of poverty in the United States. But, she said, interacting with the people there gives her hope that things can change for them.

The homeless encampment began as a cluster of a few tents in July, and it has grown to more than 150, with an estimated 300-plus residents — perhaps the largest of its kind ever in Minnesota. What to do about the site — and its people, including children — has been a vexing question for community leaders, as the city faces shortages in temporary shelters and low-income housing.

Shawn Phillips, the pastoral minister of Gichitwaa Kateri parish, which is home to the Native American ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said he goes down to the camp nearly every day, sometimes to help serve a meal, sometimes to talk with residents for hours.

The camp grew as people heard that organizations were offering services there, and that there were efforts underway to find

its residents housing, he said. Many of its residents were already homeless and living elsewhere in the city.

On Sept. 26, the Minneapolis City Council approved a plan to relocate the encampment to land nearby owned by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. The plan includes razing vacant property and the building of a temporary “navigation center” to shelter residents through the winter, while housing is sought.

Phillips, 60, thinks the plan to relocate the camp is good, but he’s concerned that there won’t be enough space for everyone, especially as winter looms.

“We’re short of housing across the board,” he said. “We’re short of temporary housing, we’re short of shelter housing and we’re short of permanent housing.”

Phillips was one of the first volunteers to spend time in the camp, said James Cross, 52, the founder of Natives Against Heroin. In June, Phillips had been going to Natives Against Heroin awareness meetings when Cross asked him to visit homeless camps with him. At the time, there were four or five different camps in the area, Phillips said. Cross and Phillips would meet and pray with homeless people, and have dinner together afterwards. When they started going to the Hiawatha-Franklin camp, there were only six tents, Phillips said.

Volunteers and people who work with the nonprofits serving the camps have made a point to listen to residents’ stories, pray with them and feed them at the camp, he said, which caused others to gravitate toward the spot. It has become known as “The Wall of Forgotten Natives,” and the nonprofit Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors manage a website, franklinhiawathacamp.org, for information and fundraising for it.

Many of the camp’s residents are Native American, which is why Natives Against Heroin stepped in early in the camp’s formation to offer help. Heroin use is widespread in the camp, and two people have died of overdoses; the most recent death was Sept. 30.

But residents and camp volunteers also speak positively about the camp community. “The community is what it is: There’s bad and good. Mostly good,” said Caryn Pacheco, 56, who moved to the camp in late July after being “illegally evicted” from her apartment, she said.

“A lot of us consider this more of a revolution,” she said. “It was easy to ignore us when we were spread all over. On our own. Some under the bridge. …Some in shelters where their family was split up. We come here, and we’re smack-dab in Minneapolis’ face and something has to be done. We have a refugee camp right here in our city.”

Phillips agrees that the encampment has brought more attention to its residents’ homelessness and poverty, but he also said that the camp is only indicative of a larger problem. It “has just made visible the issues that we have not only in Minneapolis. It’s in all of our communities,” he said.

He has coordinated donations, including tents, from Gichitwaa Kateri, which means “Holy Kateri” for St. Kateri Tekakwitha. A few parishioners live at the camp; others have relatives there. On two of his visits, Phillips was joined by Father Stan Sledz, 75, a retired priest who serves as Gichitwaa Kateri’s sacramental minister, who said that homelessness requires both a personal and communal response. “You need to deal with individuals and individual situations, but then find out why this evil is happening and being perpetuated,” he said.

After handing out sandwiches Oct. 2, Casandra Carmona, 21, stood at the edge of the camp with Holy Rosary visible across East Phillips Park. She had previously driven by the camp, but she hadn’t realized its magnitude until she walked through it that night. Two preschool-age boys in T-shirts had competed for her group’s attention, and seeing children there surprised her.

“Being a Catholic person, we’re taught to give back to the community,” she said of her group’s decision to bring food to the camp, adding that it was important “not to expect anything in return.”

Phillips noted that the encampment has prompted an outpouring of generosity from hundreds of people across the state, and groups from places as far away as Alexandria and Duluth — and as close as Holy Rosary — have volunteered to help its residents. “That also provides a lot of goodness,” he said. “The amount of food and donations — I hope that doesn’t stop. It has to go somewhere. This is not the only place where there’s poverty in the Twin Cities.”

Some Gichitwaa Kateri parishioners, however, think that the people in the camp don’t deserve help unless they’re clean of alcohol and drugs, Phillips said. He disagrees. Poverty can drive people to drugs, he said. People who are addicted face significant hurdles to getting treatment, and housing is frequently required for someone to enter a treatment program, he said. Organizers have been able to have the camp recognized as a “residence” for the purposes of the “Rule 25” assessment, the first step toward accessing publicly-funded treatment, Phillips said.

He is not only interested in big-picture needs — housing, sobriety, family stability — but also the immediate needs that go beyond the material.

“Sometimes people need to talk, and as they see that you’re a safe person to talk to … then a conversation will happen about whatever their struggle might be,” he said. “But it also might be that they’re looking to get a smile and [be] treated like a human being.”

That connection meant that he was able to immediately support a family after a woman who lived at a camp delivered, at eight-months gestation, a stillborn baby Sept. 30. He visited her at the hospital that day, and Gichitwaa Kateri planned to hold the baby’s funeral Oct. 12.

“How can you help somebody if you don’t build relationships?” Phillips asked. “It’s very powerful when you come, serving … [and] in the midst of that you build a trusting relationship, and they come to you.”

Phillips said he used to be judgmental of people who struggle with drugs and alcohol addiction, but getting to know people, even if they’re using drugs, “teaches me not to judge.” As an associate of the Franciscans of Little Falls, Phillips said his time at the camp has prompted him to reflect on the story of St. Francis encountering a leper near Assisi. The saint offered the leper a coin and kissed the leper’s hand, and the leper kissed him in return. The encounter was a pivotal experience for Francis, who had been disgusted by lepers’ disease.

At the camp, Phillips said, he constantly encounters a thought: “Maybe this is the ‘leper’ that I need to hug.”

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