Young woman’s death heightens concerns about medical care at Minneapolis homeless encampment

September 11, 2018

A young woman living at the homeless encampment in south Minneapolis died Saturday from complications resulting from an asthma attack, raising fresh alarms over the health and safety of approximately 300 people living at the large and growing site.

Alissa Rose Skipintheday, 26, was found unconscious and not breathing last week near the entrance to the camp at E. Franklin Avenue and 16th Avenue S. She was rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center, where she died on Saturday.

Family members and residents of the camp said Skipintheday suffered from chronic asthma and did not have her emergency inhaler at the time of the asthma attack. She was homeless and had been living at the encampment for several weeks, they said.

This is a tragic event that is painful for that entire community, said Dr. Antony Stately, chief executive of the Native American Community Clinic (NACC) on E. Franklin Avenue. It really highlights the critical nature of conditions at the camp and the urgent need for on-site medical care.

The growing tent city has alarmed local health officials and American Indian leaders, who have been scrambling to find emergency shelter and medical care for people arriving at the site, located on a narrow strip of land along Hiawatha and East Franklin Avenues.

Despite an intensive outreach effort by a coalition of city, county and American Indian agencies, people with chronic illnesses and serious infections at the camp are still going without basic medical care. Efforts to bring a mobile health unit to the encampment have been held up by regulatory restrictions and liability concerns, say local officials and outreach workers.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey had pledged to find housing for everyone by the end of September, though that deadline is now seen by many Indian agencies as unrealistic given the swelling numbers of people arriving at the site.

The encampment which tent dwellers have called the Wall of the Forgotten Natives because it borders a highway sound wall and primarily consists of American Indians has roughly quadrupled in size over the past month. Residents say they are seeking safety in numbers, as opposed to sleeping alone in various spots across the city, as well as access to food, clothing and social services.

The crowded nature of the camp many of the tents are less than a foot apart has health officials worried about the spread of infections and communicable diseases. Residents have also expressed worry that ambulances would be unable to reach the tent dwellers in a health emergency because of the growing numbers of tents and the concrete barriers recently installed near the entrances.

We need rotating shifts of nurses out here on a regular basis, said Margarita Ortega, a volunteer with Natives Against Heroin, a street outreach group that has been a visible force at the encampment. This death could and should have been prevented.

Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Womens Resource Center and chair of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID), which represents a coalition of American Indian organizations in Minneapolis, said Skipinthedays death underscores the vulnerability of the growing numbers of men, women and children living at the encampment and the urgency of finding provisional housing.

If [Skipintheday] had a home, medical care and some stability, she might be alive today, Park said. We absolutely need to get more services in [to the encampment], because we cant let this happen again.

Since Saturday morning, grieving family members and residents of the tent city have been stopping to pray at a spirit fire built to honor Skipintheday near the center of the encampment. A spirit fire is a traditional ritual in some American Indian communities that is believed to help a persons spirit join with ancestors after death. The small fire has been burning nonstop since Saturday, sending small plumes of smoke wafting over the passing traffic on Hiawatha Avenue.

A funeral ceremony will be held on Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Community Center on the Mille Lacs Reservation.

Chris Serres 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres

Update hourly