Harm Reduction

Jeanine Jackson

I am an enrolled member of Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, part of the Anishinaabe and Ojibwe people. I am also Potawatomi. My passion is eradicating homelessness, and I care deeply about Indigenous issues, which are the focus of my graduate work.

Both of my parents were activists. My father was part of the American Indian Movement and was at the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973, helping to evacuate women and children. My father fought for Indigenous women to receive prenatal and health care. He found midwives for women who were turned away from hospitals.

I lived with my grandparents for a period of time. I was unhoused as an adult. My mother worked as a housing activist for Indigenous people in the Twin Cities. I believe everyone deserves the dignity of having a roof overhead, and that all of us are responsible for making that happen.

My research paper, written alongside Dr. Crystal Fashant, is on Indigenous homelessness and appears in the Journal of Nonprofit and Public Affairs this month. I have learned there is a strong correlation between being unsheltered and becoming a targeted victim of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) crisis in our state.

Unhoused people are vulnerable. Those with the disease of addiction and no space to safely use are doubly vulnerable. These issues intersect.

My research is primarily about people staying in tent cities near the Little Earth Housing projects in Minneapolis. Many who stayed there told me the city mismanaged things and that news reports misconstrued the demographics of those living there, referring to it as the “wall of forgotten Natives,” rather than reporting on the diverse group of people failed by the system. This false narrative made access to the correct services take longer. In my research I learned, for example, that the city sent clean needle kits instead of caseworkers. You should not send aid without first surveying the needs.

Because of systemic racism, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are held to a higher standard to keep their housing. Being unhoused or worrying that you can lose accommodation means you cannot work on other issues, such as addiction.

I believe the Housing First approach should be a primary model. Instead of emergency shelters and transitional housing, the Housing First approach says that people experiencing homelessness need access to independent accommodation first. No matter what they struggle with — whether they have a criminal record or use drugs — people deserve housing. Only after being housed will other solutions become possible.

People with addiction issues are more susceptible to predators and therefore more likely to become MMIR victims. One way to reduce harm is to provide safe injection sites, which have been considered in Minneapolis, but never came to fruition. The federal government has threatened states that want to start safe injection sites, even though scientific research shows giving people the space to use safely reduces the risk of overdose, increases access to health services, and helps prevent exploitation.

The decriminalization of sex work will lessen the fear of speaking out about the exploitation sex workers experience. Washtenaw County in Michigan is no longer prosecuting consenting sex workers. Minnesota should take progressive action like this.

Political leaders are beginning to talk about the MMIR crisis, but the real work has yet to be done. With any grassroots movement, we need collaboration with government systems. We must agree that harm reduction is the best way to save lives. Nonprofits that do street outreach should advise the government. A national organization focused on the MMIR crisis will enable better collaboration, rather than many smaller nonprofits working alone.

Change will only happen when enough of the right people, with the right power, make it a priority.

Action = Change

Support local cultural places that serve people in the community such as Minneapolis American Indian Center, Indian Health Board, Ain Dah Yung Center, Wilder Foundation, St. Stephens Human Services, and House of Charity

As in the #metoo movement, community engagement is what makes a difference. The MMIR movement is starting to get noticed in part by Indigenous influencers on TikTok and other social media. If you are on TikTok, follow @lilnative98, @ugrunna, and @sherry.mckay.

Jeanine Jackson (she/her/they) is a Minneapolis-based graduate student who recently finished her master’s degree at Metropolitan State University. Her research paper, written with Dr. Crystal Fashant, is titled “Native American Homelessness & Minneapolis’ Infamous Tent City: Dispelling Myths & Stereotypes to Uncover Solutions.”