Alissa Rose Skipintheday. Courtesy photo

Native homeless woman's tragic death brings light to struggles in Minneapolis

Alissa was friendly and outgoing; she loved to take photos and dreamed of becoming a beautician.
By Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
indiancountrytoday.com

Alissa Rose Skipintheday, 26, was a resident of the Minneapolis Wall of Forgotten Natives homeless camp when she died on September 8.

Although Skipintheday carried an inhaler to help with her asthma, it was lost or stolen. After hearing her cough and struggle for breath, camp residents called an ambulance. She went into cardiac arrest and was eventually taken to Hennepin County Medical Center where she died.

If Skipintheday had lived elsewhere, her death might not have received as much media attention. “She would have just been reported as another death among Native people,” said Colleen Johnson, Skipintheday’s aunt.

Related to lack of access to her asthma medication, Skipintheday’s death is a tragic occurrence that her aunt says might help draw attention to the plight of homeless lives and vulnerable people. “Maybe her death will help draw attention to our people’s lack of housing and the violence our women face,” said Johnson. “The hospital staff did everything they could to save her, but she was just too sick.”

“Alissa was really strong-hearted, but she struggled with mental illness and addiction. She ended up being part of life on the street,” Johnson said.

Johnson of the Mille Lacs Band of Minnesota Ojibwe, gained family permission to speak about Skipintheday’s life and death with Indian Country Today. Johnson and other family members now have custody of Skipintheday’s three children, ages 18 months to 8 years old.

“We want people to know that she had a family who loved her; she was a mother and she loved her children; she wanted them to have a good life. It was a tough decision for her, but she asked us to care for her children,” Johnson said.

Skipintheday’s Ojibwe name was Miskwaanakwadookwe Red Cloud Woman. She was raised by her grandmother, a traditional Ojibwe woman who often took Skipintheday to ceremony. Skipintheday was 3-years-old when her mother was killed in a car accident. She was a jingle dress dancer and was crowned Miss Jr. Onamia, her hometown on the Milles Lac Reservation.

“My mother (Skipintheday’s grandmother) really loved Alissa and took good care of her,” Johnson said.

“Alissa was friendly and outgoing; she loved to take photos and dreamed of becoming a beautician. That woman loved doing her hair and nails,” Johnson laughed. “Alissa was so pretty,” she added.

Alissa Rose Skipintheday, 26 who was a resident of the Minneapolis Wall of Forgotten Natives homeless camp when she died on September 8, 2018. Courtesy photo

But something happened to Red Cloud Woman. Around age 13, she suddenly changed.

“She began to make poor decisions and use drugs either out of anger or to blot out some kind of pain or trauma. Nothing we did seemed to help her once she got into that world,” Johnson recalled. “We would get her into treatment, but she would leave or relapse. She got kicked out of tribal housing over allegations of drug use.”

“But addiction is addiction. It’s a disease that won’t let go,” Johnson said.

Skipintheday eventually became homeless, and went to Minneapolis.

She and Skipintheday would often message via Facebook or phone text. “Whenever you decide to come back to us; we’ll be here,” Johnson wrote to Skipintheday. Sometimes Skipintheday would text her after long intervals of silence. “I’m still alive,” she would write.

Family members felt terrible about Skipintheday’s homelessness according to Johnson. “I would put money into her bank account but never more than $20.00 at a time; I was so frightened she’d overdose,” Johnson said.

Skipintheday often fell victim to theft and violence. Thieves would take her purse containing her identification, cell phone and asthma medication. While living at a tent encampment in Minneapolis, Skipintheday died due to lack of access to healthcare in addition to having lost her asthma medication.

“She had been sober for two weeks when she died; she really wanted to make a life for herself and her kids,”Johnson said.

The Wall of Forgotten Natives
The Wall of Forgotten Natives is a tent encampment of mostly Native homeless people located next to a highway sound barrier wall at the intersection of Cedar and Hiawatha Streets in South Minneapolis. People first began pitching tents in the area in June 2018; the camp has since grown to more than 300.

According to Patina Park, director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, The Wall started as homeless people began camping together to find safety. “There is safety in numbers,” she said. Park also said the growing encampment puts the issue of homelessness and the affordable housing crisis right into peoples’ faces.

“They may have read about the issue and seen the statistics but seeing the struggle first hand in the form of living and breathing people has had an impact,” Park said.

“The “othering” or objectifying of those who struggle with addiction and mental illness has allowed people to ignore and blame them for their problems,” she said.

Minneapolis’ Mayor Jacob Frey and city officials have promised to help camp residents find housing and help. “We collectively perpetually keep them as homeless, and that’s wrong, that is not right, we have to step up-and I tell you what, we’re going to (step up),” Frey told Minnesota Public Radio.

Although many media reports have focused on crime, violence and unsanitary conditions within the camp, Park noted that residents also worked to care for each other.

“Camp residents created a community; they manage themselves in many ways. The fact that there hasn’t been an explosion in violence is miraculous; that’s the power of the camp,” she noted.

A second death was linked to the homeless camp a few weeks prior. Wade Redmond died September 10 after suffering a ‘tragedy’ at the camp in August according to BringMeTheNews. No details of how Redmond died have been released.

Native advocacy and grassroots groups such as the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, the Native Women’s Resource Center, Natives Against Heroin and others are working together with residents of the Wall to meet immediate needs and find longer term solutions. MUID has created a website where people can find out more about the camp.

Mayor Frey initially pledged to eliminate the camp by the end of September and relocate people to a site that could provide longer term shelter. The Minneapolis City Council, however, voted to postpone the choice until September 26.

“The emergency is not the camp. The emergency has been going on for years,” John Tribbett, of St. Stephens Humans Services, told City Council members. “The emergency is now visible,” reported the MinnPost.

Park agrees. The lack of affordable and supportive housing underlies issues for Native people specifically to include missing and murdered Native women, sex trafficking, addiction, mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other problems.

More than 1 in 5 Native American and Alaska Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetimes; 56.1 percent of Native women experience sexual violence versus 49.7 percent of white women according to a 2016 report by the National Institute on Justice.

The impact of violence caused both men and women to express fear for their safety, miss time at school or work and express need for services. More than one in three women and more than one in six men were unable to get legal, advocacy, medical or mental health services.

“Many of our people need more than shelter, they may be suffering from untreated PTSD and need supportive, stable housing,” said Park. “Past convictions for prostitution, drugs or other crimes also ban people from access to public housing,” Park added.

Without stable housing, even minor health problems can grow serious according to Park. “Alissa died from a very treatable condition,” said Park.

“Alissa’s death is horrible, but she puts a face on the struggles here. That is the power of this camp.”

Visit franklinhiawathacamp.org for up to date information on needs at the camp and how to help. Please don’t deliver items directly to the encampment; there is no storage available according to camp organizers.

Mary Annette Pember wrote this article for Indian Country Today. Pember, an independent journalist, has been writing about Native American people and issues since 2000 for ICT, ReWire News, the Guardian, and others. She has provided in-depth coverage of sexual violence against Native women, the impact of historical trauma, and the importance of spirituality, culture, and language for Native people. A winner of several media awards and fellowships, including the Clarion, Rosalyn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, and University of S. California Annenberg National Health Fellowship, she is an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. Find more of her work at mapember.com.

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