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Calls intensify for swift action on health risks at Minneapolis homeless camp

American Indian agencies and Twin Cities nonprofits on Saturday intensified their calls for medical care and drug treatment services for vulnerable residents of a rapidly growing homeless encampment in south Minneapolis.

Their entreaties came in the wake of two deaths over the past week linked to the crowded site.

Monday night’s drug overdose-related death of Wade Redmond, 20, brought greater attention to health and safety risks at the camp along Hiawatha and Cedar avenues, near the Little Earth housing complex.

Many of its residents suffer from serious illnesses and substance-use problems and live in tents within inches of each other, creating conditions ripe for the spread of respiratory infections and communicable diseases.

Despite an intensive outreach effort, heroin and methamphetamine use is common, and at least a half-dozen camp residents have overdosed in recent weeks, say nonprofit officials providing outreach at the site.

Redmond died at Hennepin County Medical Center two weeks after going into cardiac arrest at the camp as the result of a drug overdose, a family member said. Less than 72 hours before Redmond’s death, Alissa Rose Skipintheday, 26, died at HCMC after being found barely conscious and not breathing at the camp. Skipintheday suffered from chronic asthma and did not have her emergency inhaler at the time of her death, according to her relatives and camp residents.

LaDonna Redmond, of Minneapolis, Wade’s mother, said Wade, who identified as queer and preferred the pronouns “they” and “them,” had been struggling with addiction since high school, but had been reaching out for help on Facebook and through text messages. She questioned how Wade could have lived several weeks at a highly visible homeless camp, where outreach workers have been visiting daily, and still not receive help for substance-use problems. When Wade collapsed from the overdose, people at the camp provided several injections of Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of opioids. But the rescue effort came too late: Wade had already gone into cardiac arrest, she said. Methamphetamine and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, were in Wade’s system at the time, she said.

“My son made mistakes, but I don’t think that if you make mistakes then you should have to pay for them with your life,” said Redmond, who is running for Hennepin County commissioner but has put her campaign on hold to grieve for Wade. “Wade was feeling bad about himself. He was trying to get some help. And there are more people out there [at the camp] who are reaching out.”

She added, “There needs to be a really tight, ground-level intervention, where people are equipped emotionally and physically to do the things they need to do to get these people help.”

In recent weeks, the heads of several nonprofits and Indian-run organizations have expressed frustration at what they see as a slow humanitarian response by government officials to the medical needs and substance-use problems of camp residents. There are several known cases there of a drug-resistant bacterial infection known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to sepsis, pneumonia, bloodstream infections and death. And many of the residents have mental health and substance-use problems.

On Wednesday, volunteers for the street outreach group Natives Against Heroin resuscitated a young man who had overdosed inside a portable toilet at the camp by injecting him multiple times with Narcan, camp residents said.

“This is a public health crisis and we need to respond like that,” said Robert Lilligren, a former Minneapolis City Council member and vice chair of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, which represents leaders of 20 American Indian nonprofits in the Twin Cities. “This cannot be business as usual.”

Relocations lie ahead

On Friday afternoon, as reports of Redmond’s death emerged, members of several American Indian nonprofits and Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano met to discuss the future of the encampment. The discussion centered on the urgent health needs of the growing tent city, which consists mostly of American Indians, including some families, children and pregnant mothers. It has quadrupled in size over the past month and now has approximately 300 people. Minneapolis city officials unveiled a tentative plan last week to move the camp residents to one or more provisional shelters by early October before cold weather sits in.

Dr. Antony Stately, chief executive of the Native American Community Clinic (NACC) on East Franklin Avenue, said he is “dumbstruck” by the lack of coordinated response from city, county and state health agencies to the health risks at the swelling camp. “All we need is for one of those kids at the camp to go to school with TB [tuberculosis] or hepatitis A and then everyone in the school will have it — and then you have a serious outbreak,” said Stately, whose clinic has deployed health workers to the camp. “Their lack of ability to coordinate this is a good indication of how outbreaks happen.”

Despite delays, medical aid is starting to arrive. Starting Monday, teams of nurse practitioners and other community health workers led by NACC will walk from tent to tent providing a range of health services. The teams will evaluate people’s wounds and exposure to infections, enroll them in medical public health plans, and fill prescriptions for medications, Stately said. State and county health agencies are also exploring ways to vaccinate people against the flu, hepatitis A and other communicable diseases, officials said.

There has also been discussion among Minneapolis City Council members about opening the state’s first “supervised injection site,” where people at the camp can inject heroin and other illegal drugs under the presence of trained medical professionals who are ready to respond in case of an overdose. Supervised injection sites are currently prohibited under federal law, but at least a dozen large cities, including Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle, are considering them as a response to a surge of opioid-related deaths.

Researchers have found that overdose deaths have fallen dramatically in areas surrounding injection sites in Canada and Europe, where the sites have gained traction as a way to combat drug abuse.

Cano, who walked through the encampment Friday, said she will be urging city and state officials to explore the concept of a supervised injection site. “We’ve been kicking this conversation down the road for too long,” she said. “Now the problem is right in front of us and we can’t ignore it.”