Fox 9 Investigators: A death in tent city

- In just a few months, the tent city for the homeless along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis has taken on a life all its own, making it hard to ignore a problem that has been hiding in plain sight. 

“They slow down and they record it makes us feel like zoo animals,” said Tony Grahn, looking at the gawker traffic along Hiawatha Avenue.

He has been at the camp since relapsing at a sober house.

Grahn, a trained medic, has given the opioid overdose medication, Narcan to more than a dozen people who have overdosed on heroin at the camp, including two of the three who have died. 

Pamela Rivera was one of them. She died September 30, at 5:00 in the morning, from what appeared to be a fatal heroin overdose. The official cause of death is pending a full toxicology report.

TELLING THEIR STORIES

“My name is Pamela Rivera and we are at a homeless camp,” she can be heard saying a video that was posted on Facebook. “We just call it tent town for natives.”

That was in August when there were just a dozen tents along a retaining wall off Hiawatha Avenue, there are now more than 200.

Behind the camera, and often in front of it, was Lydia Marie. Friends call her a modern day Joan of Arc, a one women relief organization.

Months ago, she began delivering supplies to the camp and telling their stories on Facebook Live to thousands.

Along the way, she developed a friendship with the 52-year-old the mother of eight.

“What she was telling me was often she wasn’t told when coats were being brought down or meals were being prepared,” recalled Marie.

“They distribute to their family and friends,” said Rivera on Facebook.

Rivera told her the group running the camp, Natives Against Heroin (NAH) was playing favorites. 

“They’re (NAH) the ones taking all the donations, taking them to the people who live down that way,” said Rivera, motioning to the other side of Tent City. “They don’t care about none of us living down this way.  They don’t even tell us if there are donations.”

When Lydia was asked if there is a power play at the camp she responded: “Yes. I know I’ve witnessed it.”

On another Facebook video, made by Lydia, she asks an unidentified man if he got anything from NAH and he replies: “No, they treat me a certain kind of way.”

Lydia picks it up saying, “As you guys heard there’s a bit of a division, we don’t want any problem, but there’s got to be fairness. We are out here advocating for the wall which is the original 13 tents.”

And then a few weeks ago, Rivera hit rock bottom and is crying on a video. 

Her story was rambling and heartbreaking. Her husband had gone on a drinking binge. In addition, she said she wasn’t getting food. 

“My old man, he went back to drinking,” Rivera says on the video. “I can’t walk down there every day."

She claimed she was on three different waiting lists for housing.

“I’ve seen people who walked in two days ago and they’re moving into a place, and I heard there were under the table things going on,” says Rivera.

PAMELA’S DEATH

Marie told her she’d help but also sensed Rivera could be putting herself in danger by openly talking about the troubles in Tent City.

“When I tried to get her to stop talking, I should have turned off the camera. I wish I would have turned off the camera,” said Lydia.

When Lydia came back the next morning, she discovered Rivera had died in the middle of the night, from what appeared to be a fatal heroin overdose.

“When they say the streets are talking, rumor has it she was given a bad hit; she was given some laced up form of bad dope that killed her,” said Lydia.

Tony Grahn gave Rivera several hits of Narcan, he said. But it was too late.

“A few individuals come through, they’re making profit off this place,” said Grahn who was referring to drug dealers.

After her death, NAH posted their own video on Facebook, showing them kicking out a couple of suspected heroin dealers and tearing down their tents. 

“NAH can’t do it all, we are out here for the people but we do our best to make sure people are safe. If we left today imagine what this would be? It would be strong controlling the weak,” said James Cross, the leader of Natives Against Heroin.

He told the Fox 9 Investigators the group is stepping in to fill a vacuum and denied the claims of favoritism.

“NAH’s out here for everyone. Look at those tables, everything lined up on a table. Everything is here for everybody. We don’t want nothing. We just control and they don’t like control and that’s why some of them are out here. They don’t like having structure,” said Cross.

But the Fox 9 Investigators heard the same thing from a half-dozen others at the camp many who refused to go on camera.

“You don’t obey, you don’t get that nice jacket. You don’t obey you don’t get those shoes. You don’t obey I’m going to shut you down,” said a confidential source who lives at the camp.

REPORTS OF PROSTITUTION

And heroin is not the only problem in Tent City, so is prostitution. 

“It’s not free and you have no money you have sell yourself out,” said the confidential source, meaning prostitution is happening in exchange for heroin and other drugs.

From coast to coast, cities are struggling with homeless camps. 

In Oakland California, fire has become a major concern. Sources in the Minneapolis Fire Department tell the Fox 9 Investigators that is also a concern at the Minneapolis camp. 

The city’s plan for a temporary shelter, a few blocks away, is scheduled to be open the first week of December.  

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