Natives Against Heroin Saving Lives at Tent City

Dylan Swisher

The nations opioid problem has hit all area’s in this country hard. Not even rural America has escaped the consequences of the latest drug epidemic. But the Urban areas have been hit the hardest by the more recent drug trends. Some populations have been affected more than others. One group that has been particularly caught up in this problem have been the Native American community.

As the homeless population has swelled in the Twin Cities, the need for a place for them to stay has grown. The large group of homeless Minnesotans, predominantly Natives, has begun camping in an area that has become known as Tent City or The Wall of Forgotten Natives. “It’s been going on for many years, but the city and the police have always kicked them out.” Said James Cross, Founder of Natives Against Heroin. “So, they would move around, down to the bike paths, under the bridges, down by the river, in between garages, and even between 24th and Bloomington, they’d be laying out on the sidewalks right there.”

This situation continued, and Cross and his group would try to do what they could to make the environment a little safer for the addicts that were in the area. “Natives Against Heroin would be out there making sure they had water, making sure they had ice, and something to eat, bringing them out clean kits, Narcan, and we just said one day ‘why don’t you guys stand up and come together and show what the homeless problem is.’”

The numbers began to climb and before long Tent City was born. “. There were probably three tents and then five tents, and then it grew, and grew, and grew, and today we have over 200 tents.”

As the number of tents grew, the police became less and less successful at kicking them out. The surrounding population became aware of the situation and were concerned. “When you’re invisible, it’s easy to hide you, but when you’re visible, it becomes a public and safety concern.” Cross said “Then everybody that drives down 55, everybody that walks down that path, everybody on Franklin Avenue that drives past, it becomes a concern, and everybody starts asking questions like ‘why are they out here?’ or ‘why are they homeless and what are their barriers?’”

Over the summer, Tent City has become a place where the homeless have been able to gain access to a number of services. These have been easier to provide to them now that this population is more concentrated in one area. “You’ve got different housing people and medical help out there. You’ve got myself doing those Rule 25’s; you’ve got harm reduction services from Valhalla or Southside Harm Reduction giving clean kits and giving Narcan and having classes on how to give Narcan.” Cross said “We have to make sure we’re always picking up the dirties (used needles)”

“You’ve got medical out there checking wounds, and if people have open wounds or are looking sick they can refer them, and there are other services across the street that are doing showers and trying to do some housing.” Cross said, “So, yeah there are services out there, but some of these relatives don’t want services.”

” They’re so used to living in there, and they think it’s comfortable now. We’re hoping now that it’s getting colder that they’ll really get motivated, so they can get these services and get inside.”

Although the residents at Tent City have newfound access to these services that doesn’t mean all the Dangers of their lifestyle are mitigated. “Last week we were having three a day [non-fatal overdoses]. Before that, we were probably having about five or six with that pink stuff.” Cross stated, ”You’d go help one person, and as soon as you were done, you’d have to save another person. So, we were lucky we only had three overdose deaths down there in all the months we’ve been down there.”

Natives Against Heroin have been known to use more confrontational methods than most organizations of it’s kind. Often they take it upon themselves to “evict” suspected dealers that have set up shop in Tent City. “One of our primary goals is to confront dope dealers around the community and on the reservations because that’s the real problem of what’s happening with all these deaths.” Said Cross, “At the camp, it’s the same thing.”

“We go undercover, and we watch the spots when we hear the community telling us. We do our own investigation. We don’t just listen to anybody and then go and push someone out. We do our investigation and watch.” Cross said, “We see how many people are going to that tent and see how many people hang around. Then if we see it and we clarify that it’s going on, then we’ll go shut em’ down. We’ll tell them to get out of here.”

The current set up at Tent City will not be viable for much longer. The winter was inevitably going to come and a contingency plan needed to be put in place. Luckily, a suitable solution is in the works. “It’s called the Navigation Center, and it’s on Red Lake property they’ve got down here. They’ll have some transitional housing with other services provided.” Cross said” But the place will only hold 120-150. I believe in late December or early January it’s going to happen.”

“But it’s only a temporary thing because in June the owners will start building their transitional housing there.” Cross said, “And that’s why we were saying ‘They’ve got 1.5 million dollars to do that?’ but we’re grateful that Red Lake stepped in because they had more power and with the leaders that were in the City Hall pushing us so when Red Lake came out there with their power move, it gained us traction to get something done for these people.”

Natives Against Heroin have been working to keep the homeless addicts of their community safe and re trying to keep them alive long enough to get the help they need.” We meet our relatives anywhere in their addiction.” Said Cross, “We go down to the hospitals for the people that have OD’ed, so when they wake up, they see someone that cares.”

“85% of the time when the paramedics come, the addict is alone, so we’re trying to change that, so these relatives know that we’re here for them. We don’t judge, we smudge, and we want them to know that they are not alone.”

And although Natives Against Heroin is a group that predominantly focuses on the Native population, they are attempting to help addicts of all racial and ethnic groups. “Anybody of any nationality is welcome here. As long as you come with a caring heart and you come in a good way and a respectful way.”

Even as James Cross and his group are having a positive impact on the homeless addicts of the Twin Cities and the various Indian reservations in MN, the grim reality of the problem is persistent and ongoing. “Just imagine if we weren’t down there how many deaths there would have been this summer.” Said Cross, ” We’re all Narcan trained, and we’re there at that moment to do what we’ve got to do to help our relatives when they’re turning purple. We never give up.”