Minneapolis will finally get affordable apartments, courtesy of Red Lake Nation

Last year, more than a hundred of Minneapolis' homeless found shelter on this site. The Red Lake Nation plans to turn it into an apartment complex by next year.

Last year, more than a hundred of Minneapolis' homeless found shelter on this site. The Red Lake Nation plans to turn it into an apartment complex by next year. Mark Vancleave, Star Tribune

Last year, many in Minneapolis awoke to a troubling reality when a makeshift city of homeless people formed along Hiawatha Avenue. At its peak, several hundred people lived there, huddling in tents between the retaining wall and the busy road as the days got shorter and colder. Most of them were Native American.

With a crushing winter on its way, advocates scrambled to put together temporary housing. Thus, the “navigation center”—a heated shelter near East Franklin Avenue and Cedar Avenue—opened in December and took in 175 people from the camp. Residents had access to meals, hot showers, and nearly round-the-clock social workers.

According to MPR, most residents—about 60 percent—have since moved on to permanent housing or treatment programs. But it was far from a perfect solution. Forty people were deemed a “threat to others” and kicked out. Drug use was “ubiquitous” and hard to police. Bathrooms and social services were in separate facilities, which meant a difficult trudge through the snow to access them. By June, about 50 people were still living there, and the facility was shuttered.

That isn’t the end of the story. The land beneath those shelters belongs to the Red Lake Nation, and it has big plans for the site: permanent, affordable housing.

On Saturday, members of the tribe took to the ground with golden shovels and anointed it with a new purpose. By next year, they hope to finish a six-story apartment building, complete with a health care center, a community space, a Red Lake Nation embassy, and 110 units going for as little as 30 percent of the area median income, which is $30,000 a year for a family of four.

The name of the complex is Mino-bimaadiziwin Apartments. It comes from an Ojibwe phrase that means something close to “live the good life.” Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong wasn’t immediately available for interview requests, but he told MPR the name was no coincidence. The complex is a “path toward healing” for people who have fallen on hard times.

“People believe in what we’re doing here,” he said. “They believe in uplifting our people. And they believe we need more resources to get back to that mino-bimaadiziwin.”

There’s a depressing historical paper trail that can explain how that good life got so far out of reach. For decades, the United States federal government’s prerogative has been to “assimilate” Native Americans, mostly by painfully separating them from their families and support circles.

Starting in 1860, the feds ran boarding schools where young Native kids were taught to talk, dress, and otherwise act like white, Christian kids. Investigations of these schools in the ’20s found that the students were also often overworked, malnourished, and given a paltry education besides. 

In 1956, the feds passed the Indian Relocation Act, which incentivized Native people to leave their reservations and migrate to cities, but “assurances of opportunity gave way to discrimination, isolation, dead-end jobs, and poor living conditions that continue today,” the New York Times reports.

The majority of Native people live in urban areas now, which presents a problem: The lion’s share of federal dollars dedicated to tribal governments go toward reservations. There is rarely enough funding to expand resources and services to urban areas, where “Native Americans often lack basic housing,” the Times reports.

By 2015, Native people accounted for 8 percent of Minnesota’s homeless adult population, even though they represented only 1 percent of the state’s population overall.

In a time when the Twin Cities is getting slapped by a housing crisis, Native communities are often bearing a disproportionate share of suffering. There’s hope that Mino-bimaadiziwin—in many ways an unprecedented cooperation between the city, the county, and multiple tribes—can help change that.