Powderhorn Park residents win reprieve from eviction, for now

Government agencies have no apparent plan for hundreds living in city parks

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

Hundreds of people living in Minneapolis parks can stay there for now, as the Park Board ditched a plan that would have limited the number of tents per park to 10.

But it’s not clear what happens now — a bevy of government agencies and elected officials agree the parks are not a viable solution for people experiencing homelessness, but have offered no plan on what to do next. 

On June 17, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board passed a resolution allowing people experiencing homelessness to seek refuge on parkland, as the George Floyd protests displaced people from a different encampment nearby. But as hundreds of people flocked to 35 city parks — including about 600 people in Powderhorn Park — the Park Board considered a mass eviction by September, only to relent at its Wednesday meeting.  

Parks commissioner AK Hassan, who grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya, said the Park Board is working with the city, county and state to help people find housing or hotels. “We’re not in the business of housing people but we’re trying to help people find dignified housing.”

What’s the plan?

“We’re waiting to hear back from them,” he said. “They’re willing to work with us.”

Mayor Jacob Frey said he doesn’t agree with the Park Board’s decision, according to a video posted of him Thursday. He said the city doesn’t have the resources to establish 600 units of affordable housing with the kinds of social services needed to accommodate those at Powderhorn, and more homeless people coming in daily. 

“Size in part — the number of tents at an encampment — can contribute to safety incidents. The safety concerns, the assaults, the human trafficking and drug trafficking that you would see at a 50 or 60 or 70 tent encampment is dramatically different from what you’d see in a six or a seven-tent encampment.”

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

Government officials’ view of the situation has likely been shaped by their experience with a 2018 Franklin-Hiawatha encampment dubbed “the Wall of Forgotten Natives.” 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.

Hassan acknowledged that living in tents in parks is not a long-term plan. But he opposes moving people around again. Some of the people at Powderhorn Park were evacuated from tents during the George Floyd protest to a vacant former Sheraton hotel. They were evicted from there, and many wound up at the park. 

“We have to find these people housing,” Hassan said Thursday. “No one should be staying in parks in 90-degree heat.”

The Park Board says it’s spending $15,700 per week in rentals and staff, providing 24 portable toilets, 50 garbage cans, three handwashing stations and a restroom. The district increased staff to pick up litter and deal with trash, clean the restroom and assist with food shelf services.

Hassan said the state promised to reimburse the park district for those expenses.

Kat Eng, a volunteer with the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement, said she hopes Hennepin County starts to play a bigger role. “We have been asking the county to be the responsible body,” she said. “I’m an unpaid person that has been running an emergency (shelter).”

She has pushed the county to expand its use of hotels as an emergency response to COVID-19, to no avail. Her group has asked the Park Board to engage with residents and work on a plan together, rather than imposing something on them.

Parks Commissioner Londel French advocated for a collaborative plan during the Park Board meeting. He has been at Powderhorn almost every day since people were bused there from the former Sheraton. 

What started with 30 to 40 tents has grown exponentially as people learn they can get food, medical help, showers — even a book to read, he said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out,” he said of the growing encampment. 

He said the Park Board doesn’t do housing; about the only thing it can do is keep the bathrooms clean and trash picked up.

But the Park Board is not going to make people leave until they have a place to go, French said.

“The county, the state and the city are all pointing fingers at each other,” he said. “That’s something our big brother agencies are supposed to be doing.”

He said the pandemic, Floyd uprising and ongoing opioid epidemic combined to create the encampments.

“To blame these people for systematic issues is wrong.”