Gina Mallek lives in a tent, but her hair is coiffured in a neat ponytail, she is wearing make-up and jewelry, and she has an upbeat attitude as she moves confidently through the encampment.
The encampment where Mallek is currently staying is her fourth. She first joined an encampment at a park last summer after fleeing a domestic violence situation. “I was terrified,” she says. She had not expected to stay in the encampment after she helped a friend move in, but she blended in well at the camp and had a feeling of safety.
“People started giving me stuff,” Mallek says. “‘Here is a tent. Here is an air bed. Here is dinner.’ All things I desperately needed at the time.”
Mallek suddenly felt like she was getting the care she needed. “A community was helping protect me from what I was afraid of,” she says. Her ex, the person she had been running from, had found her at other times and kidnapped her, she says. He went looking for her at another encampment, but no one told him where she was.
Mallek feels this is a different experience from being in homeless shelters, which is where she originally met her ex.
“He preys on people who are vulnerable and desperate,” she says. “Honestly, I know that if anything were to happen to me here, everybody would step up to defend me.”
In Minneapolis, the encampments that have emerged since the beginning of the pandemic have offered an alternative to people who have faced evictions and do not feel comfortable in traditional shelters for a variety of reasons.
The city has been sending outreach teams and partnering with nonprofit organizations to offer shelter to residents. So far, the city has invested $13.4 million since 2020 to expand and improve shelter access. This includes new developments like the Native-focused 50-bed Homeward Bound and Avivo Village, an indoor space of individual structures.
A Community Planning and Economic Development statement says, “We do not believe it is safe for anyone to stay outdoors and encourage all of our unsheltered neighbors to engage with outreach providers and find shelter whenever possible.”
For Brenda Morrow, living in an encampment has provided support, but there are dangers as well. Residents at encampments sometimes experience assaults, theft, and property damage.
The city attempted to close the encampment where Morrow is now staying, citing health and safety concerns due to pollution at the site and other issues. Ultimately the city did not close it because of resistance from protesters.
Morrow says she does not have many other options. She would prefer to have her own place, but she cannot afford it. “Housing is so expensive,” she says. “At the last place I was at, I would pay $550 per month for the room. [Rent, cell phone, bus card, and washing clothes] would take up almost all of my money. If I was lucky, I would have $10 to $50 left for the month. It is just hard.”
Born on the Leech Lake Reservation, Morrow had been living with her daughter and grandchildren at the start of 2020, but the situation was not working. She moved into an encampment after she found out her son was staying in one. He offered her his tent and got a smaller one for himself.
She is like a matriarch for the camp. “Everybody calls me mom or auntie,” she says.
“There are a lot of reasons people end up in encampments,” says Sheila Delaney, a social justice advocate focused on housing and responses to people who are unsheltered. Delaney is a volunteer with Envision Community, an advocacy group that was created by people with experiences in being unsheltered.
“There is a group of people that have lost faith in traditional systems,” Delaney says. “Like anything, once you lose faith, it is very, very hard to repair that trust. That is why they end up finding community themselves. It does not always look like what some people might think of as a beneficial community, but it is to them.”
According to Delaney, cities and governments around the country have begun adjusting to groups of people who feel more comfortable outside. In Seattle, for example, there are eight tiny home villages, which are essentially sanctioned encampments.
“I think more than anything, people are learning that big facilities, in general, don’t work that well. Smaller solutions work well, because you can be more flexible. Between 20 and 30 is a number that is a manageable community.”
According to Delaney, studies like one done by Ohio State University have shown sanctioned encampments don’t end homelessness faster than other options, “but for individuals who are there, who can feel secure in their surroundings, who can perhaps build relationships with people that might give them access to the next step — it is a good solution.”
Adult Shelter Connected (612-248-2350) offers available indoor shelter options.
Top needs as of mid-May 2021 include adult-sized sleeping bags, adult-sized backpacks, rain jackets/ponchos, new underwear for all bodies, 1-2 person tents
Wish list donations can be directed to St. Stephen’s Human Services (contact Amanda, firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule drop-off)
Food donations, House of Charity, 714 Park Ave., Minneapolis (contact Noah, email@example.com to schedule drop-off)