by Lora Esse
The dilemma of unsheltered people living in encampments is widely known. Less known is how many unsheltered Minnesotans are people with disabilities. These encampment residents and the people who seek to support them face a series of difficult issues, especially in Minneapolis.
Volunteers working with unsheltered people in Minneapolis have seen that more and more of those with disabilities have very limited access to health care of all types. As Minneapolis aggressively evicts and displaces those living in encampments, people with disabilities face some of the greatest struggles.
City officials contend that encampments are illegal and people should go to shelters, But there’s a whole host of reasons why shelters don’t work for everyone. People may feel unsafe or preyed upon in shelters. Sleeping in large rooms full of strangers can have triggering effects.
Shelters may also lack a wide array of disability accommodations.
Why not seek housing through various programs? Waiting lists for deeply affordable housing are very long – sometimes with waits as long as three years. It’s also all too easy for disabled people to get into housing and then be evicted and homeless again. Housing that is available may also be in suburban areas, away from needed services and supports, access to transit, and proximity to community and familiar places.
Minneapolis has recently started a new policy, posting no trespassing signs without dates indicated. Officials used to give specific dates for encampment residents’ evictions. But as residents and community supporters defended the camps, Minneapolis switched the notice to “week of” rather than specific dates. In a recent encampment clearance, four city blocks were cordoned off and about 150 law enforcement personnel sent in. This was at 6 a.m. Residents were given ten minutes to leave, with no places to go. They were not allowed to take their tents and belongings. No help was offered.
In these situations unsheltered people with disabilities can all too easily lose needed medications, needed papers and devices they need to live their daily lives. Imagine being without life-saving prescriptions or even a cane.
The displacements not only have immediate impacts, they also can affect health care over a longer term. One troubling issue is that volunteer street medics and harm reduction folks regularly visit camps to provide Narcan in the event of overdoses. They provide clean supplies, wound care and basic health care. Various organizations and volunteers prepare and deliver healthy, hot meals. When people are constantly being displaced it’s difficult to find them. That makes it difficult if not impossible for volunteers to have consistent relationship with the people serving them.
All of this makes hard lives much more challenging. Displacement makes it so much more difficult for anyone working to find or maintain a job, seek transitional or permanent housing, or maintain any kind of personal connections with others. Everyone needs stability to make their lives better.
The daily struggle to survive becomes much harder with disability and displacement. Please talk to policymakers and remind them that many who live in encampments face additional barriers due to disability.
Lora Esse is a St. Paul resident and encampment volunteer.