Met Council fences in homeless encampment in Minneapolis

Sanitation workers clean around a homeless encampment along Hiawatha avenue in Minneapolis on May 7, 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The Metropolitan Council began installing a fence around a Minneapolis homeless encampment Thursday to prevent it from growing as local officials try to figure out how to manage the numerous health and safety risks homeless people face amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of tents — now surpassing 70 — has been steadily growing on the triangle of grass near Hiawatha Avenue and the Sabo Bridge since mid-March, when Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order took effect. The order initially barred law enforcement from breaking up homeless encampments — in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but the governor recently reversed himself under pressure from local agencies.

The move to add structure to the encampment comes after weeks of negotiations between local and state agencies, which have been reluctant to support encampments with portable toilets and hand washing stations — as advised by the CDC — for fear that doing so might encourage their growth.

But given the lack of affordable housing and shelter space, encampments were to be expected. Homeless people had limited options once COVID-19 closed public places and Metro Transit was forced to curtail bus and train service.

Naukeya White has been sleeping in the encampment off and on for the past several weeks. She welcomes the two portable toilets that were brought in on Wednesday. Before, the nearest public bathroom was more than a five minute walk along a six-lane highway. Like most residents, White would go behind some trees just beyond the encampment instead.

“It’s hard out here being homeless. It’s hard out here being humble,” White said. “And it’s even harder when we ask for simple things like garbage containers, hazard containers, a place to wash our hands.”

But she was not happy about the fence: “We are scared of structure because that puts us in the mind frame of prison.”

Naukeya White, 40, spends most nights in a homeless encampment along Hiawatha avenue in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Others said they believed it would make the encampment safer.

“I feel like it’s going to be better because a lot of these people that want to start shit won’t come here,” said Jay, who declined to give his last name.

Tina Bardeau, who was sitting with Jay, disagreed.

“No. Because if someone gets ridiculous for whatever reason and they decide they want to grab a weapon . . . how are you going to escape?” Bardeau asked. “You better have some good tennis shoes on so you can scale that fence.”

Jay replied, “I think the fence would keep the weapon from even coming in.”

“Bullshit,” Bardeau said. “There’s people here that already have weapons.”

Residents of the camp on Thursday weren’t sure what else was going to happen. One resident heard they’d be getting IDs and only residents would be allowed in from midnight to 6 a.m. Another heard they’d be getting transportation to doctor’s appointments or wherever they needed to go.

Terri Dresen, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Council, said those rumors aren’t true. There will be no curfews or IDs. People will be free to come and go, 24/7, even those who are not residents of the encampment.

Metro Transit Police will monitor people coming and going and stop new tents from being moved in. Dresen said the transit police will enforce the law as they do on the light rail.

Homeless encampments are political hot potatoes that no agency — Minneapolis, Hennepin County or the Metropolitan Council — wants to be left holding. With the encampment along Hiawatha on the Metropolitan Council’s property, they were left to decide to either break it up, let it grow or rein it in.

“The Met Council is not leading this per se,” Dresen said Thursday. “This is the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County . . . and we’re working in partnership with all the agencies involved.”

But representatives for the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County directed questions about the encampment back to the Metropolitan Council.

“It’s their property,” Sarah McKenzie, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis, said Thursday. “They’re the ones making the plans for the fencing.”

“Not our land,” wrote Carolyn Marinan, a spokeswoman for Hennepin County, in a text message. “We only have a human services component,” referring to the county’s Health Care for the Homeless.

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The three governments are working in coordination with one another and local outreach groups. The Minneapolis Police Department has a unit dedicated to homeless and vulnerable people that’s bringing water and food. The city also plans to set up an additional hygiene station nearer to the encampment.

Hennepin County’s Health Care for the Homeless sends nurse practitioners, drug and alcohol counselors and other medical staff to encampments and shelters every day. Hennepin County has also moved hundreds of homeless seniors and people with underlying medical conditions into hotels to limit their risk of exposure.

But taking leadership over an encampment is politically and fiscally risky.

In 2018 and 2019, the city of Minneapolis, the Red Lake Nation and local non-profits spent millions of dollars in cash and staff hours managing the Franklin-Hiawatha encampment, dubbed “the Wall of Forgotten Natives,” and then moving 175 people into a new temporary shelter for about six months. It’s a history no one wants to repeat, but difficult to avoid with the Twin Cities’ persistent affordable housing shortage.

Homeless advocates warned local leaders that encampments were inevitable. Once mass transit and public places like libraries closed or curtailed their hours, hundreds of people suddenly had fewer places to go. And, Walz’s stay-at-home order allowed the encampment along Hiawatha to grow while local law enforcement looked on with dismay.

Advocates encouraged local leaders to get ahead of the encampments by designating public land that would be easily accessible for emergency and sanitation vehicles.

“We needed designated locations for people to camp where you could create some structure and create some hygienic protocol, social distancing,” said John Tribbett, the street outreach manager for St. Stephen’s Human Services.

The location of the encampment is not ideal. It’s squeezed up against a private fence next to a bike path, an electric power station and Hiawatha Avenue. It’s difficult for sanitation and police vehicles to reach, and it’s on grass, which can become contaminated and is not easily cleaned.

Now that the encampment is established, moving it risks dispersing people potentially infected with COVID-19 throughout the city. So far more than three dozen homeless Minnesotans in Hennepin County have tested positive for COVID-19, including people living outside.

Dresen says the Metropolitan Council will finalize a plan over the next few weeks to test people for COVID-19 in the encampment.

Preventing an outbreak of coronavirus, which could already be spreading through the encampment, is just one of the challenges facing the Metropolitan Council and its partners.

Drug and alcohol use is common. Stealing and violence are also problems. There have been children living in the encampment, including an infant. Many residents say they can’t leave their tents because they’ll be robbed.

But people say they also feel safer in encampments than on their own or in a shelter. Encampments are also preferable to shelters because they don’t have rules, and people don’t have to pack up all their belongings in the morning to leave for the day.

But neither a shelter nor an encampment are good enough for the people living there, said White, one of the residents.

“Just because we don’t have a roof and a floor does not mean we’re not worthy of it,” she said.