Minneapolis Parks reverses eviction, allows people living in Powderhorn encampment to stay

Dennis Barrow moved to Powderhorn Park in south Minneapolis after being evicted from a hotel that had been transformed into a shelter during the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

About two dozen homeless Minnesotans were spared eviction from Powderhorn Park in south Minneapolis Friday, as parks officials reversed themselves after police issued each resident a 72-hour eviction notice early Friday.

“I feel so relieved,” said Dennis Barrow, who set up a tent in the park a few days before.

Barrow sought refuge in the park as he and hundreds of homeless people were forced to leave a former Sheraton hotel nearby, which activists had commandeered during the height of unrest in south Minneapolis following the police killing of George Floyd.

For nearly two weeks, about 200 people lived in the hotel and more than 100 daily volunteers provided food, security and support. But the effort overwhelmed volunteers who struggled to find long-term support while managing the nearly-hourly crises that arose from having so many people with complex needs living in such close quarters.

The utopian-vision of a homeless sanctuary finally unraveled when institutional funding failed to materialize and the owner ordered everyone to evacuate. Volunteers officially ended the experiment on Thursday night by pulling out of the hotel, and handing out tents or trying to find people a room in another hotel or a bed in a shelter.

With no security, people walked off with all the TVs and other appliances while others moved in, turning the hotel into a sanctuary for drugs and crime.

The episode has shined a harsh spotlight on the Twin Cities’ persistent housing crisis. According to the most recent estimate of the Wilder Foundation, nearly 20,000 people are estimated to be homeless on a given night with about a quarter living outside of formal shelter. The complex mental and physical illnesses of the population and lack of affordable housing have bedeviled the efforts of government agencies and nonprofit groups for decades.

This spurred the activists and volunteers, who lacked experience or expertise running a social service operation, to try their own hand at the former Sheraton, until the effort collapsed this week.

Barrow decided to camp in Powderhorn Park because it’s near where his child lives and allows him to have his own space.

“With coronavirus, I wanted to have my own space,” Barrow said. “I decided the weather’s not bad and there’s a lot of supportive people around that I can get connected with as far as housing goes.”

Outreach workers and volunteers from the neighborhood pitched tents in the park, providing food and water, hygiene supplies and basic medical care. Other neighbors waved to residents of the encampment as they walked their dogs.

But not all neighbors were so welcoming and calls to the police about the 20 or so tents triggered the authorities  to order people to clear out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people living in encampments not be displaced during the pandemic — something that’s happened to Barrow twice in the past few weeks — because it breaks connections with outreach workers and leads potentially infected people to carry the virus to other parts of the city.

On Friday, more than 60 residents showed up to hold a press conference calling on the Minneapolis Park Board to rescind the eviction order.

“I’m here today to welcome the new neighbors and residents of our park,” said Lily Lamb, a life-long resident of the neighborhood. “This is at our doorstep and our opportunity now is to support the folks who are here. Evicting them is not an option. There is nowhere else for them to go.”

Later Friday, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent Alfred Bangoura announced people would be allowed to stay indefinitely while state and local agencies help them find housing.

“The MPRB believes everyone experiencing unsheltered homelessness is vulnerable and deserving of being treated with dignity and respect,” Bangoura said in a statement. “I had hoped to use the next 72 hours to work with local leaders and local agencies to find the resources and connect people to the housing, shelter and services they need, but now recognize that 72 hours is not enough time.”

Without the ability to stay in Powderhorn, the people likely would have wound up camping on land along highways or train tracks, belonging to various government agencies with unclear responsibility for them.

Encampments tend to grow, and the one in Powderhorn Park could swell to a size that becomes dangerous to people who live there and unmanageable for the people trying to help.

But now, the encampment in Powderhorn is tidy and quiet. It has hand-washing stations and portable toilets a short walk away, although the park’s nearby bathroom remains locked.

“This is a nice area. The residents welcome us as residents,” Barrow said. “That makes us feel safe. I slept real good last night.”