“This Tent. This Sleeping Bag. This Situation Is Not The End.”

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“It started small and then grew to 200 tents. There was a lot of word of mouth. People talking about it as a safe community. Safer than other places they could go,” Kristin, a member of the YouthLink Outreach team, says of the Franklin/Hiawatha Encampment—a community comprised primarily of Native people experiencing homelessness.

While some in the homeless community—as well as the community at large—believe the encampment to be a safe place, Dr. Heather Huseby, YouthLink’s Executive Director, explains why this isn’t the case, especially for the young people YouthLink serves. “The 16- to 24-year-old group is a challenging population. Shelters and services in the Twin Cities become scarce for them. And the adult shelters are dangerous for young people with more immature mindsets.”

“Many of the youth would rather stay outside and risk the elements rather than going to a place where there is a good chance they’re going to be taken advantage of,” she continues. “That’s one of the things that attracts them to the encampment. They see the tents and the services and they think it might be safe—but it’s not a habitable place for young people. They get taken advantage of. They can access illegal drugs. There are a number of things they get exposed to that we need to get them away from.”

And that’s exactly what Kristin and the others on her team have been working to do over the past few months. Every day, she and her fellow Outreach team members Angel and Jose don their bright blue vests—lovingly dubbed “Walmart vests”— and head to the encampment.

“We’ve been going out there, finding youth and helping them navigate their resources,” Angel says. “We work with other providers at the encampment to identify tents where young people are staying and find ways to approach them without intruding. It’s really about being consistent, so we can build relationships and trust.”

Jose, YouthLink’s Outreach Supervisor, adds, “It’s more difficult to develop a relationship in a short period of time. The youth out there won’t believe we’re there to help them if we’re just passing through.” So the team goes out regularly, hoping to make slight changes every day.

To build trust, the team focuses on meeting the young people where they are, making sure they get not only the help they need, but the help they want.

“We have to be very intentional about listening to the young person. Do they really want housing? Some are just not ready. Coming from street culture into housing can seem backwards. Many become depressed by the change,” says Angel.

Kristin explains further, “When you move into housing, you lose the social interaction. You go from being around a group of people 24/7 to your own apartment with four walls surrounding you.” (Imagine being 16 years old and moving to another school with no way to contact your old friends. This is what it can feel like.) “We’re checking in and letting them know they can have the resources when they want them—when they’re ready. Sometimes it’s as simple as introducing them to the service provider. That can reduce a
lot of the anxiety.”

Hennepin County has been instrumental in connecting the Outreach team to youth at the encampment. “When they know there is a young person out there, they will call our Outreach team,” says Dr. Heather. “Historically,
we’ve had a strong relationship with the county. Our organization was started 40 years ago by the city and the county, so there’s already an organic relationship there.”

“When the encampment started to form, we met with the Director of the Office to End Homelessness to talk about services and came up with the plan to get our team out there,” Dr. Heather says. “They understand there’s a difference between working with young people and working with adults,
so the county genuinely and enthusiastically wanted us to make the first contact with the youth.”

Between the county, Dr. Heather, and the Outreach team, everyone is working toward a common goal. “We want to get these young people removed from this dangerous situation and into a stable environment. But more than, that we need to make sure we can get them onto the right path for their lives,” says Dr. Heather.

“We need to help all these young people understand this is temporary,” Jose explains as he talks about YouthLink’s role in the process. “This tent. This sleeping bag. We have to let them know this situation is not the end. We have to move them to a safer, better place.”

From a community standpoint, the encampment has been a mixed blessing. “I think it’s been a good way to give the community a view into what’s going on. This isn’t something that just happened this year. It’s become the Thanksgiving of tent communities. Everybody wants to donate. Put some time in. But they need us year round,” says Jose.

While those living in the encampment have transitioned to the Navigation Center, YouthLink continues to work with the young people they connected with there. Dr. Heather sums it up: “These people are worth investing in. They are not throwaways. They have dignity and integrity and they are an investment in our future.”

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