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Just Say NAH

Every day James Cross, the founder of Natives Against Heroin (NAH), takes to Facebook and live streams video from the Franklin Hiawatha encampment. The videos usually include a stroll through the camp, his booming voice greeting residents with a hearty, "Boozhoo!", his presence a comfort to the many who walk up to him, interrupting with their questions, needs, concerns and complaints. James and his second in command, Keiji Narakawa, answer the questions patiently, irregardless of the sobriety - or lack thereof - of the questioner.

Natives Against Heroin was the first group to bring services to the camp when it appeared last summer. Then just a scattering of tents, NAH members would come and serve food, provide companionship, and encourage those wrestling with addiction to enter treatment. An ad hoc group, NAH includes ex-addicts and their supporters, many with criminal records. They specialize in street outreach and shutting down drug houses by making them loudly public through events that include Native drumming and the chanting of "Shut It Down". Many members of NAH are imposing in presence, sporting the kind of arm and facial tattoos that advertise a certain brand of toughness. If you didn't know them you might never guess that they are each living proof that a person can turn their life around and follow what they often call the "Red Road": the path of sobriety and service.

Over the past three months James Cross and NAH have become closely identified with the encampment, and in his frequent videos Cross maintains that NAH represents the voice of the people - the homeless residents of the camp, until recently invisible to most. Non-traditional and at times confrontational in approach, NAH can be controversial but the value of their presence at the camp is clear even to their detractors - and can be measured in the number of lives NAH members have saved.

Trained to administer Narcan* and deliver CPR, NAH members have saved many people from fatal opioid overdoses. When the dangerous "Pink Powder" arrived in the Twin Cities the number of overdoses in the encampment spiked. A fatal mixture of synthetic heroin and Fentanyl, the Pink Powder was cause for alarm. Signs were posted throughout the camp warning of the dangers. Nonetheless NAH members often dealt with multiple overdoses in a single day. Dealing with life or death crisis day in and out is emotionally taxing. Although they claim otherwise the pressure of constant vigilance has got to take it's toll.

Now, as the weeks turn into months and the camp continues to grow, NAH members find themselves acting not only as opioid outreach counselors and emergency medical providers, but also as unofficial security, drivers, supply managers and camp cooks. They pick up trash, de-escalate arguments and drive youth who miss the bus to school. The work can be dreary and the days long and cold; the near constant recent rains threatens to dampen spirits at the camp, as well as clothing, tents, and anything left for a moment unprotected. Cross reads the mood of the camp well. When spirits sag he'll run out and return with 50 pizzas, or enough burgers and buns for a massive curbside cookout.

Cross and Narakawa hope that one day Natives Against Heroin can take their volunteer-driven street outreach to the next level. They hope NAH can become a more formal organization, apply for grants and other support, and formalize their mission and methods. Indeed, Narakawa is currently completing his last year of college at MCTC; aptly enough one of his classes this semester is Grant Writing. They both know that their work at the encampment has thrust NAH into the spotlight - with all the potential - and possible pitfalls - that accompany so much attention.

NAH members continue to staff the camp 24/7 and remain stoic in the face of uncertainty and the growing cold, fueled on coffee, bad jokes, and a belief in their mission to serve all their relations, especially those wrestling with homelessness and addiction. The work is honorable, and never done.

*Narcan is the brand name of naloxone, an opiate antagonist. In the event of an overdose (or possible overdose), Narcan can be administered immediately, and reverses the overdose by blocking the brain's opioid receptors.

James Cross and Keiji Narakawa of Natives Against Heroin.

Mark, Mike and James, of Natives Against Heroin.

Fabian and Keiji of Natives Against Heroin

Posted by Camille

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