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Institutional Dining: What It Takes to Feed Homeless at Franklin/Hiawatha Camp

Kirstin Wiegmann and Reverie Food Truck provided free meals for 100 campers. Other food trucks have also come to offer free meals to the residents of the camp.

The important thing to remember, says Camille Gage, is that every person living in the much publicized Franklin/Hiawatha camp was homeless before. It’s just that they were dispersed, singly, or in small groups, all over the city. But now that they are gathered together, they’re much more visible, and it’s more plain to see what Gage calls a refugee crisis. “These people are refugees from capitalism,” she says. 

Gage has been handling public relations and general “navigation center” organizational efforts, along with several other agencies and volunteers since the camp first became visible toward the end of last summer. She was asked to assist with the work by the Native American Community Clinic to see what could collectively be done to keep conditions as safe as possible in the camp. At its peak there were more than 200 people living in the camp, and some estimates put the number closer to 300.

The navigation center model has been used in other large cities dealing with large numbers of people living in the streets, and offers a “high-touch” service model where, in addition to working to provide a hot meal every day, residents can receive mental health treatment, chemical dependency treatment, access to running water including showers, port-a-potties and other necessary services. 

The high percentage of Native people living in the camp, and the camp’s proximity to The Dakota Nation is an obvious black eye for the city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota, says Gage. “This is about how we treat the Native people, whose land it is that we live on,” emphasizes Gage. 


The feeding effort 

But a large part of Gage’s work-—along with many other Native agencies, city agencies, volunteers and other individuals and groups—has been organizing the more than 15,000 meals that have been served at the camp over the course of 96 days, and counting. It’s an effort she says, that is “never fully under control,” but one that they strive mightily to keep running as smoothly as possible. 

Obvious logistical factors include organizing dinner service before nightfall, dealing with food donations that too often include raw produce (there is no kitchen on site) and ensuring that people are getting hot meals rather than the overabundance of day-old bread and other surplus donations that too often don’t translate into a nutritious meal. 

But in spite of the challenges, what has emerged is a community, and a grassroots effort of church, friend and family groups; restaurants; food trucks; nonprofit organizations; and hundreds of others who have donated food, time, energy and other resources to the feeding efforts.

Gage called the dining area they have to work with “urban rustic,” with no electricity or running water, plus exposure to the full elements of nature. About 150 or so individual meals are served daily, and easy to distribute meals like chili, sloppy joes, and bagged lunches are preferred. [Note: No more volunteers are needed at this time, as the encampment is in the process of moving to temporary indoor housing.] 

Brittnay Olsen is one such volunteer who felt compelled to give after seeing reports of the camp on the news. She contacted Gage through the website franklinhiawathacamp.org. She signed up for what she thought was a service slot, only to quickly learn that she would be tasked with bringing the entire meal herself. 

“If there are gaps in the schedule, it means that individuals might not get a warm meal every day,” she says. So she went to the grocery store that day, and figured out a meal for 150 including all of the logistics. 

“I’m by no means a cook or anything like that,” she explains. And while she was struck by the sense of community and camaraderie she experienced there, she was also left affected by the gravity of the situation. 

“The reality of how they are living is incomprehensible,” Olsen says. “This is a destitute place. They’re just hanging on. Some of the tents have icicles on them, and some people are not properly dressed to be outside in a Minnesota winter.” 

She encourages everyone, regardless of capacity to donate or give, to visit the camp anyway. 

“Go out and see how people are living [in your own community]. No one should have to live this way, and certainly not in the Northern United States,” she states.


Why the navigation center? 

“If you were a very organized homeless person, and you had access to transportation resources, you might be able to find something to eat every day [outside of the camp meal services],” says Gage. 

She’s talking about church meals and other services that offer food to those who are food insecure. But unfortunately, most people experiencing homelessness do not have said resources and too often must turn to dumpsters and other survival-based means of eating. 

In the Franklin/ Hiawatha Camp Blog, there is an entry titled “Food is Sacred and to be Shared.” In the entry, Gage speaks to the issue of “unnamed city and county officials” stating in a WCCO report that donating food created a safety issue in the camp and that homeless people should seek resources in traditional homeless shelters. 

She says that in the months that hundreds of people have donated food, there have been zero safety incidents related to food, and that intricate care has been taken to clean up the site to ensure pest control, another not-so-visible portion of their daily work. 

It should be noted that everyone is welcome to dine at encampment mealtimes, and the community at large is invited to share a meal with their neighbors currently living at the camp. Gage says that traditional shelter environments often mean being separated with one’s partner or pets, and if a person is not sober, or does not have a record clear of felony or prostitution convictions—common among people experiencing homelessness—they will not be allowed in a traditional homeless shelter. 

The continued “all are welcome” community of the encampment is an important element of the navigation center. 

How to give

The Franklin/Hiawatha Camp is now accepting non-perishable food items and bottled water (no clothing). Please deliver to Gichitwaa Kateri Catholic Church. Accepted donations include non-perishable food items, bottled water and juice. Please try to make healthy options available. No clothing accepted except for socks, underwear, winter outerwear and boots. 

Gichitwaa Kateri Catholic Church is located at 3045 Park Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55407

For more information: franklinhiawathacamp.org

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