COVID worse than cold for MN homeless this winter 

Avivo has constructed 110 "little houses" in a north Minneapolis warehouse to help homeless transition to permanent housing arrangements. (Submitted photo.)

By Lee Egerstrom

New low-income housing, temporary shelters and a variety of government and nonprofit organization programs have greatly helped the Native American population cope with both the COVID-19 pandemic and cold temperatures this winter.

When temperatures dropped well below freezing for days on end in February, it did beg the question of how people in homeless encampments were surviving. Twin Cities metro residents remember the Wall of Forgotten Natives encampment from a year ago, and tribes and rural counties have been dealing with homelessness as well.

Far more data will be forthcoming during the year. A quick assessment by homeless and housing advocates does show much was done to meet immediate needs within the past year despite all of Minnesota’s 87 counties having shortages of emergency shelters and affordable housing.

These gains on the housing front were especially important this winter because cold and COVID are connected, said Jordan May, interim executive director of the Red Lake Homeless Shelter at Red Lake.

“We couldn’t just find a warm bed or couch for someone. We had to do it with social distancing to keep people healthy, from infecting others,” he said.

Several emergency shelters operated by the American Indian Community Development Corp. (AICDC), church groups, other nonprofits, and various state, county, city and tribal organizations have moved people out of tents in parks to warm places. With this environmental improvement, the groups and programs can also offer counseling, meals and health services.

Sanitation and bathing facilities also help homeless stay healthy.

Two other developments serving the urban Native population in Minnesota are especially timely.

Avivo, a Minneapolis nonprofit, has opened Avivo Village in Minneapolis’ North Loop Neighborhood on Washington Ave. N., south of West Broadway Avenue. Inside this former book publishing warehouses are 100 “tiny houses,” which are minimal structures about the size of college dormitory rooms.

The official opening is set for March 8, said Kim Sheagren, director of communications. These houses will serve up to 100 single adults, age 18 and older, as transitional housing while they avail themselves to services and seek out “permanent housing and healthy living.”

As a result, Avivo anticipates serving 250 to 300 people annually.

Despite the March opening date, 16 units were occupied in December while the other “tiny houses” were under construction, Sheagren said. Of them, 14 of the original residents identified themselves as Native Americans.

“In July, Avivo was asked to conduct a survey of individuals living in the encampment at Powderhorn Park. About 45 percent of 306 individuals identified as Native Americans.” Avivo expects similar demographics when all the units are occupied this month, she said.

Above: Mino-Bimaadiziwin Apartments,
in the Twin Cities, is a large urban development project undertaken by Red Lake Nation. The 110-unit complex is planning a mid-March official opening.

Also giving a boost to housing in Minneapolis is the opening of Mino-Bimaadiziwin Apartments, 2109 Cedar Ave., a large urban development project undertaken by the Red Lake Nation. This 110-unit complex is also planning a mid-March official opening but it, too, had residents starting to occupy apartments in December, said Leah Loud, office manager for the Red Lake Nation Embassy in Minneapolis.

Most of the early tenants are Native Americans, Loud said, although it will be an equal opportunity landlord utilizing public housing programs to support low-income and affordable housing assistance going forward. CommonBond Communities, an affordable housing nonprofit in St. Paul, is handling property management and is doing the subleasing.

Unlike Avivo Village, Mino-Bizaadiziwin Apartments is not attempting to be short-term, emergency housing. Rather, it is geared to safe, family housing with studio, one, two and three bedroom units.

Support organizations and the Red Lake Nation Embassy – its urban office – will also be moving into the complex.

Out around the state, each of Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations have different housing programs and react to different housing and homelessness situations, said Red Lake’s May.

Again, COVID-19 concerns hamper what tribal services can do, he said.
The Red Lake Homeless Shelter has 18 beds but can only use half of them to keep proper COVID social distancing, he said.

Red Lake is now adding a second shelter, adjacent to the existing shelter, which will reduce some of the pressure. In the meantime, Red Lake has moved three Sprung Structure tent-like facilities from the site where Mino-Bizaadiziwin has been built to be used at Red Lake.

Sprung Structures, named after the Canadian family that started the company making temporary and emergency housing and buildings for other uses, is almost a military barracks-style concept. It was used to house homeless people a year ago in Minneapolis when the Wall of Forgotten Natives was shut down.

May said one of the Sprung facilities is being used as emergency housing at Red Lake. Another is being used to house social services made available for Red Lake Homeless Shelter residents.

In addition, tribal and other programs supporting the shelter’s work have allowed use of hotel vouchers to temporarily house people during frigid cold spells this winter, May said.
All that said and done, “there is still a great need for more shelter beds,” he added. “We have 40 people on a waiting list. We get calls every day.”

That squares with data assembled by the Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP), another Minnesota nonprofit advocacy group for housing issues.

Using data and economic guidelines from the American Community Survey at the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and Minnesota Department of Revenue, MHP has concluded that all 87 counties in Minnesota have housing shortages and housing cost problems.

This survey, called its County Profiles project, found in every county:
•One in four renter households pay too much for housing;
•At least one in 10 homeowner households pay too much for housing;
•Accounting for inflation, rent has increased in 86 of Minnesota’s 87 country from 2000 to 2019; 18 counties have had increases of 30 percent or more;
•36 of the 87 counties had no newly issued permits for multifamily housing construction in 2019.

Andy Birkey, director of communications and research, said this annual, spot survey, doesn’t see the impact that COVID-19 may have played in the past year. That may show in next winter’s survey.

But this much seems logical, he said. The COVID-19 crisis has most likely slowed down housing construction. At the same time, the economic recession that has accompanied the health crisis has also put people out of work and reduced the number of hours they work each week.

That, too, will put a greater squeeze on families and individuals’ ability to pay rents and home mortgages. The generally recognized cost-burden level for housing payments is 30 percent of a household’s income.

The Minnesota Housing Partnerships county housing cost profiles can be found at

Housing assistance information is available at numerous state and local sites. Start by checking with county, city or tribal housing offices.