Governor says homeless encampments may be cleared, against CDC guidance

"We're just trying to survive," said Andre Adams, who has lived in a homeless encampment in Minneapolis since the light rail stopped running overnight because of COVID-19. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

When Metro Transit shut down overnight train and bus service in March because of COVID-19, Andre Adams lost his shelter.

“We went to a park until we got put out of there. We went to a parking ramp until we got put out of there,” Adams said. “They are putting everybody out of every place.”

Adams and hundreds of other Minnesotans living outside got a reprieve on March 25, when Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order barring law enforcement from breaking up encampments, in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But under pressure from law enforcement and an array of local leaders and agencies, Walz reversed himself Wednesday, allowing encampments to be cleared if they pose health and safety risks. That means about a hundred people in two encampments could be forced to pack up and find somewhere else to go during a pandemic.

Adams lives in an encampment with about 30-40 other people on an empty lot next to I-35W. The people living there say it may not be perfect — the nearest bathroom is in a gas station a couple blocks away — but outreach workers know where to find them and it feels safer than a packed shelter.

Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order allowing encampments to be cleared if they pose health and safety risks.

“The only reason why we’re situated like this is because shelters got full and they won’t allow other people because of the virus,” said Richard Rodriguez, another resident of the encampment. “So the best way to do it is this … try to be someplace stable, so they can keep track of us. If any kind of disease becomes a problem, they could target it.”

The CDC agrees. In March the federal agency gave guidance that says encampments should not be broken up unless people are able to move into individual housing units, as opposed to large shelters.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” the CDC advises.

The CDC also recommends that people be encouraged to spread out their tents and have 24-hour access to toilets and places to wash their hands. Those are things people in Minneapolis encampments haven’t had since the CDC issued its guidance more than a month ago.

Shelters are not a solution because they were already over capacity before COVID-19 and are grappling with their own vulnerabilities to large outbreaks, like those seen in Boston and San Francisco. To date, 23 homeless people in Hennepin County and six more across the state have tested positive for COVID-19.

Hotels and temporary housing are prohibitively expensive. Hennepin County will spend $1.6 million per month providing hotel rooms for people over 60 or those with serious underlying medical conditions. Adams, 59, is one year shy of being eligible.

When the stay-at-home order was announced, homeless outreach groups advised city and county officials to get ahead of the encampments that would inevitably form when bus and train service was reduced and the places where hundreds of homeless people spend their days and nights closed.

A hand-washing station set up by community members near a homeless encampment in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

“We’ve had this perverse game of musical chairs” said John Tribbett, street outreach manager for St. Stephen’s Human Services. “And the music has stopped. People who were kept highly mobile through constant displacement and camp sweeps have now settled into place because everything else has been closed.”

Given the impossible situation, Tribbett and other outreach workers advocated for designated areas for people to camp. If there were going to be encampments, at least they should be somewhere easily accessible to outreach and emergency workers, include portable toilets and hand-washing stations and where people would not have to camp too closely together.

Instead, they grew organically where they often do: strips of land next to highways and train tracks belonging to various government agencies with ambiguous authority and responsibility over them.

“We have not created a structure around encampments,” Tribbett said. “Nor have we created places with hygiene supplies and water and where people are staying at a distance from one another.”

Without local authorities embracing and managing encampments during the stay-at-home order, they were destined to pose serious health and safety concerns.

And people living in the encampments don’t just face the threat of coronavirus, but also Hepatitis A and HIV, which have been spreading in epidemic proportions through Minnesota’s homeless communities for the past year. There’s also the threat of violence and drug overdose.

There’s little political will to allow anything resembling encampments, especially in the shadow of the Franklin-Hiawatha encampment two years ago, where more than 200 people camped cheek-by-jowl in between a highway and a concrete sound barrier.

Fire ripped through the camp twice, while overdoses were a daily — sometimes hourly — occurrence.

Ultimately the city of Minneapolis, along with tribal and non-profit agencies, spent millions of dollars to move 175 people from the encampment into a temporary shelter for the winter. The site of the former encampment has been fenced off by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which owns the property, ever since.

Aside from the political aversion to encampments, money is also scarce. City and county budgets have been stretched like never before to respond to the health and economic crises from the coronavirus.

For example, Hennepin County has already depleted its $10 million contingency budget for the year, largely by leasing hundreds of hotel rooms for seniors living in shelters as well as those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have nowhere to isolate. Minneapolis and St. Paul, meanwhile, have ponied up millions of dollars for housing assistance and business loans.

The city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County set up portable toilets in the downtown area and then added several more in south Minneapolis in late April. The American Indian Community Development Corporation in the past week set up a service tent — like it did two years ago for the previous encampment — with portable showers.

A flag hangs upside down, signifying distress, at a homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

They’re still a hike from where the two largest encampments are, meaning people are still going to the bathroom in buckets and bushes and may or may not be able to wash their hands.

On Saturday, someone living in the encampment along Hiawatha Avenue threw ash over a fence into the ditch below, and the hot embers started a fire. The Minneapolis Fire Department rushed to put out the flames, which were difficult to reach because the encampment is set back nearly a football field away from the highway.

In the face of the chaotic encampment situation and pressure from law enforcement and state agencies, Walz took action Wednesday with his executive order.

“I had a lot of people that were pushing me hard to do it two weeks ago,” said Walz’s Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho. “I’m not excited about what we have to do . . . I think that the purpose of this was to make sure that we hadn’t completely tied the hands of law enforcement and public health when an encampment had gotten to a stage where it was actually exacerbating the public health situation that we’re trying so hard to mitigate right now.”

Metro Transit, which owns the land under the Hiawatha encampment, did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for Minneapolis wrote in an email that the city “continues to monitor existing and future encampments and prioritize the ongoing public health and safety of their residents.”

Tribbett, the outreach manager with St. Stephen’s, says he fears the executive order could exacerbate the public health crisis.

“The biggest concern we have with the clarification is it does not require local officials to provide an alternative to an encampment if it is cleared,” Tribbett said. “If you’re saying you can’t be here, then where do you go?”

Ho says there are other places to go.

“We think that there are some alternative places for people to go. Either they could camp in smaller groups or they could seek shelter,” Ho said.

Minneapolis now has two encampments that could be broken up to limit the risk of coronavirus spreading. But breaking them up could also worsen the risk of coronavirus by moving people farther away from hygiene stations and out of reach of outreach workers and medical providers.

At the Stevens Avenue encampment, Adams, sitting on a borrowed walker and cleaning his shoes with a toothbrush, said the nearest bathroom over at the gas station was surely soon to be closed to people like him.

“They’re going to put up a sign like ‘Bathroom Out of Order,” Adams said. “I’m used to that kind of stuff . . . Why don’t they bring a portapotty? Even dogs don’t do it where they sleep.”

Someone dropped off a blue plastic barrel rigged up with a pump, but there’s no soap or paper towels. It’s labeled “Hand Wash. Do Not Drink,” but Rodriguez says you can drink it if you boil it first.

They both say there’s no reason to break up the encampment. People drop off food and health care workers come through the camp often.

“Nobody’s committing no crime,” Adams said. “We’re just trying to survive.