Park Board readies new eviction order in Powderhorn Park; some residents say they aren’t leaving

Tracy Gomez said she's a drug user and prostitute who prefers to live in the camp, even though there are “a lot of weirdos” and some fights, but people look out for each other, too. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is considering a resolution Wednesday that would shut down the two tent cities that have arisen in Powderhorn Park in recent weeks.  

But David “Rico” Santana, who lives in the encampment on the east side of the park, warned authorities to think long and hard about it. If the Park Police try to evict them, the people won’t leave, he said.

“We’re not going anywhere, and if we go anywhere, we are all going to congregate somewhere they don’t want us to be. Maybe the Mall of America, maybe a government building.” 

The Park Board will consider evicting all but 10 tents per park throughout the city at its meeting Wednesday, which would mean most of the hundreds of multicolored tents pitched in Powderhorn would have to come down. 

The board says people experiencing homelessness are living in tents in about 30 city parks. Officials guess about 600 people are living in more than 400 tents at Powderhorn alone.

Park Board Commissioner AK Hassan, whose district includes Powderhorn, called a last-minute press conference for Wednesday to express opposition to the resolution and the backroom deal he alleges went into it. He’s also a candidate for City Council. 

A Park Board spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. 

With this south Minneapolis neighborhood under intense scrutiny following the police killing of George Floyd, the Powderhorn eviction could be volatile, especially if Park Police are called in.  

Junail Anderson, who has been volunteering at the park for weeks, said police treated Floyd like “a dog,” and now the city is considering treating the homeless people in the park “like dogs,” by kicking them out.

The Powderhorn situation has been a grim coda to the police killing of Floyd and the protests and sporadic destruction that followed. Even as many Minnesotans have reflected on the wide disparities between Black and white and rich and poor in one of the nation’s most prosperous states, hundreds of people have been living outside because they have nowhere else to go. 

All the while, they‘ve been the subject of curious media onlookers, both local and national. 

The current situation began when a homeless encampment near the protests, unrest and arson in south Minneapolis was shut down to protect the residents. 

Activists commandeered a former Sheraton in south Minneapolis and turned it into a makeshift homeless shelter. The residents and activists were evicted, leaving the hotel a damaged mess. Many came to the nearby park. Two tent cities sprang up in Powderhorn — first one on the west side of the park, and then on the east.

Former Sheraton turned homeless sanctuary closing up

The current iteration of the citywide homeless crisis can be traced back even further, however, to the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic. Libraries and public places like the Mall of America closed, and Metro Transit reduced overnight schedules, limiting options for people experiencing homelessness. Shelters reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, while some people avoided them for fear of infection. 

Two weeks ago, the Park Board passed a resolution allowing homeless people to seek refuge on parkland, citing Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency order in March preventing their removal except in certain cases. That Walz order from early in the pandemic followed guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But during a Saturday meeting, the Walz administration clarified that local jurisdictions have sole responsibility for determining what to do with encampments and how to limit their size.

So, under a resolution that will be considered Wednesday, most people would have to vacate the parks by Sept. 1.

For now, the homeless encampments have become a community, albeit a chaotic one at times, even though the park is neither intended nor suitable for a settlement of this size. 

The park district estimates about 600 people are living in more than 400 tents at Powderhorn Park. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

In heat and humidity that made the air feel like 100 degrees, two young volunteers were putting the last aqua-colored touches on a portable library Tuesday, while others gave away food and drinks in a makeshift tent next door.

They watched a man who went from chilling in a lawn chair to running wildly through the east camp screaming profanities at an invisible foe. They watched an ambulance take away a man who overheated. And they saw a yelling match break out in the street after a man ran in front of a car to try to slow down a speeding driver.

Nadine Little, who’s from Minneapolis, first lived on the east side, but then moved to the west side encampment, which is safer and quieter, she said. Little said she lost her apartment and ended up staying at the former Sheraton until people were evicted. She volunteered to clean at the hotel and also volunteers at the park camp.

“I’d like to stay here and still help out,” she said near the tent where volunteers were handing out food and drinks.

The Park Board has provided portable restrooms, a shower trailer, water and electricity. 

In the face of a pressing shortage of affordable housing and shelter space, this isn’t the first time in recent history that government has watched as an encampment sprawled. Mayor Jacob Frey said in 2018 that he wouldn’t make people move from the Franklin-Hiawatha encampment dubbed “the Wall of Forgotten Natives” unless they had a better place to go. The city, the Red Lake Nation and local non-profits spent millions of dollars in cash and staff hours managing the encampment and then moving 175 people into a new temporary shelter for about six months.

Out of that hard won lesson, the city, state and non-profit groups agreed that large encampments were too difficult to keep healthy and safe, so they’ve taken to sweeping encampments anytime they have more than a handful of tents.

Minneapolis Park Board declares parks are ‘refuge’ for homeless

But then the George Floyd protests happened, bringing newly inspired volunteers and a different government agency. In this case the Park Board, which seemed to think, at least for a time, that they could host a large encampment.

Tracy Gomez, who lives in the east camp, said volunteers also give away cigarettes and needles for people who use drugs. She said she’s from south Minneapolis, a prostitute and user for 20 years.

She said there are “a lot of weirdos” and fights in the camp, but people look out for each other, too.

“All these people here have underlying issues, mental issues, there’s a lot of other things going on other than just being homeless,” said Gomez, who is Potawatomi

Native Americans comprise 1% of Minnesota’s population but 12% of its population of people experiencing homelessness. Nearly 20,000 people are estimated to be homeless on a given night with about a quarter living outside of formal shelter, according to the Wilder Foundation.

Gomez questions where people would go if evicted. But she also said the camp “gets to be like a crutch for people who just wanna be using. I say that because I am one of them people. And I come here and I use, but I don’t do it wide open. I’m very respectful and I don’t throw my needles all over.”

Gomez would like to see an organization offer people in the park help getting sober and motivating them to get out of their routines and the “monotony of nothingness.”

Powderhorn Park. Drone photo by Rob Levine/Minnesota Reformer.

City and county officials determined the size of the Powderhorn encampment “is not wholly aligned with guidance related to the COVID-19 pandemic and fails to conform to best practices for public health and human safety,” according to Park Board documents.

Very few people were wearing masks, but residents like Melvina Maldonaeo had other concerns. She just arrived at the camp a couple of days ago after living on trains, in shelters and in a tent by Hiawatha.

She said she’s from Cass Lake, homeless since 2014, when she left her husband and kids in Oklahoma to come back to the cities for the funeral of her sister, who overdosed. Maldonaeo had an opiate addiction, and “kind of chose that over going home.”

She questioned where all the people would go if forced out of the park.

“There’s a little ruckus here and there but nothing you can’t handle. It would be devastating if they did that. Where would all these people go? Where would I go?” she asked. 

Rico Santana said he’s been homeless for a few years and was living in a tent city behind the Target on Lake Street that was damaged during the protests, and then at the Sheraton before being bused to Powderhorn.

“This is the life I come from,” said Santana, who is originally from Indiana. “The streets is where I come from.”

He lives in the east encampment, where he said they’re putting together a security team to crack down on crime and get the elderly, sick and children out of the camp and into homes. A juvenile was sexually assaulted at Powderhorn Park last week, and a 33-year-old man was shot near the park the prior week.

The Park Board resolution on the eviction says the board recognizes that sheltering homeless people in parks is not a “safe, proper or dignified form of housing.” 

The resolution also says the board’s action is a “prudent and reasonable response to the need for other agencies to accommodate encampment occupants in permanent shelter.”

In other words, one government entity is telling other government entities: This is your problem. 

Santana said park officials should think twice about evicting them unless “they wanna be all over every major network.”

“I wonder what it’s gonna look like when everybody has their video cameras out cause nobody’s moving and they wanna come in here and try to make us leave and try to put their hands on us,” he said. ”Well I think not. Because we’re gonna stand as one.”

Update: The Park Board rejected the resolution, which means there’ll be no eviction from the park.