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Meet the tent dwellers on my Minneapolis block: ‘We have children, you know’

September 21, 2018

Over the past few weeks weve heard a lot about the Wall of Forgotten Natives, the enormous tent encampment in south Minneapolis. Lost in all the discussion have been the smaller encampments, the ones tucked about the citys neighborhoods. Advocates Ive talked to, including John Tribbett of St. Stephens, a Minneapolis nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness, say there are many throughout the city.

The encampment near me if a ramshackle collection of a half-dozen tents can be called that has been a source of tension in my neighborhood and even my own home. I live on Stevens Avenue S. in the Lyndale neighborhood, near the on-ramp to I-35. My house is at the end of the block, across from where the highway barrier ends. The area was once fenced off. But a car skidded on the ice last spring and took out the fence. As temperatures climbed, the neighbors and I noticed people walking about the wooded area by the highway. Soon we saw tents peeking from the brush.

At first, I didnt think much of these developments. Living in proximity to people without homes is part of life in the city.

Then I left my bike out front longer than usual. When I finally returned, I found the back tire and seat were gone, leaving what once was a sleek Trek hybrid looking more like a metal carcass.

I confess, I found myself wondering if the people across the street were responsible. They had both motive and opportunity, I reasoned.

Objectively, this wasnt fair on my part. If you leave your bike parked in the same place for too long in the city, its going to get stripped, whether or not there are people living in tents on your block. But these people were visible. They were different from me. They were easy to blame.

Searching for safety

I live in a house with two other people, including a woman who shared my suspicions. But we didnt do anything about the encampment, at least not right away. I threw my mangled bike in my van and started taking the bus to work.

A few weeks later, my roommate told me that a stumbling drunk man had approached her grade-school-age daughter in front of the house. Later she and her daughter came across a woman changing by the side of the road.

After the incident with the woman, my housemate called the cops. She filed a complaint with the city via 311. If more people did the same, she said, perhaps the Minnesota Department of Transportation would clear out the tents and repair the broken fence.

My roommate even took her concerns to Nextdoor, the neighborhood app and online bulletin board. But the comment thread got so heated that she deleted the post, later replacing it with another. These are not people that are down on their luck, she wrote. They are people that are stealing our mail and damaging our yards with their bikes.

I understood where she was coming from. We both have daughters around the same age. They often play together. They often join neighborhood kids out front. I didnt want drunk randos approaching my daughter, either.

My roommate and I are both loving parents. Were both hard workers. We want to provide a safe place for our children. But when she had said the word cops, it gave me pause.

With that word thrown on the table, the stakes suddenly seemed higher. Maybe for the first time, I took a moment to think more deeply about the folks living in tents. I finally saw them not as homeless but as humans. I, of all people, should have known better. My own brother was staying in a shelter the week before he died, ensnared in a cycle of depression, addiction, joblessness and rehab.

Suddenly I felt embarrassed for not reaching out to the people living in tents sooner. I decided to go have a talk with them.

You want to come inside?

While catching the bus in the mornings, I had noticed a woman leaving the encampment. I caught up with her one day and explained who I was my job in journalism provided a handy cover. I told her I hoped to chat about their lives, so people could better understand their perspective, but I also wanted to discuss neighborhood issues.

We set a time, but I could see she was worried. I assured her there was nothing to stress about.

Thanks for putting my mind at ease, she said.

Can I ask your name? I said.

She told me: Daniela McDonald.

A few hours later, I arrived to the red tent Daniela shares with her boyfriend. His name is Edward Fairbanks, he said, but he goes by Junior.

I stood outside the tent as we started chatting, just as a light drizzle turned to downpour.

You want to come inside? Junior asked.

It was cramped in there with all three of us, but I felt cozy and comfortable. Rain pattered the roof of the tent. There was the constant din of cars passing on the freeway.

Daniela did most of the talking. She and Junior had been on the streets for two years, she said. They had two kids, but she said the state of Minnesota took them away. When that happened, they also lost their housing.

I read them comments from the Nextdoor post. I explained what happened with my roommates daughter.

Yeah, that would piss me off, Daniela said. If some drunk man or a woman tried talking to one of my kids, I would be mad about that.

Daniela thought she knew the guy who approached my roommates daughter. He was living on the streets, she said, though not in the encampment.

Could she vouch for everyone living there? No. People come and go, she said. I had to be honest: I dont know all my neighbors, either.

Daniela worried about the police coming. She said she wished concerned neighbors would come to them. They shouldnt have to go straight to the police, she said, because were not trying to bother people. Thats the last thing were trying to do.

And I understand about safety and children, she added. We have children, you know.

Water started seeping into the tent as Daniela spoke. Junior tried using a binder clip to clamp the broken zipper door. When that didnt work, he placed a towel near my feet.

Why werent they in a shelter? Junior has social anxiety, Daniela explained. He has trouble living in tight quarters with that many people. Theyve been in contact with a social worker from St. Stephens who was trying to get them on track for transitional housing.

Tribbett, the head of the outreach team at St. Stephens, told me the organization uses a housing first model, where the priority is helping people into independent homes and then providing other services. Still, the process could take up to eight months. The system, he said, is backlogged, partly due to the lack of affordable housing in the Twin Cities. There are currently more than 1,300 people in line, he said.

Daniela and Junior hope it eventually works out.

The three of us talked for an hour. Before I left, we all resolved to confront the man with a drinking problem if he keeps approaching kids.

Our little summit didnt solve every problem on the block, but at least we started the process of getting to know one another. Next Ill introduce them to my housemate. Id like them to meet my daughter, too. Hopefully, everyone will be a bit safer as a result.

Jared Goyette is the digital editor of WCCO Radio. Follow him at: instagram.com/jaredgoyette.

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