Class action lawsuit seeks end to police sweeps of Minneapolis homeless encampments

Minneapolis Parks Police pulled a man out of a tent and arrested him for refusing to leave a homeless encampment, which was ordered closed because of safety concerns. 21 activists and residents were arrested while most people moved to other parks voluntarily. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed Monday against the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, local officials and law enforcement on behalf of seven people who currently or formerly lived in homeless encampments in Minneapolis public parks.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Minnesota and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, follows repeated police sweeps of homeless encampments across the city, and the destruction and discarding of residents’ personal property.

“Our shelters do not have space to house people experiencing homelenessness, and our severe housing shortage makes finding a permanent place to live nearly impossible for our most vulnerable residents,” said ACLU of Minnesota attorney Clare Diegel at a press conference Monday.

This summer, as the COVID-19 pandemic made crowded shelters unappealing to many people, dozens of encampments sprung up in Minneapolis public parks. Reports of numerous rapes and assaults soon led local officials to clear many of the encampments, including two in Powderhorn Park which held more than 500 tents.

“I’m taking part in this lawsuit because our elected officials need to start paying attention to the issue of homelesness,” said Patrick Berry, one of the plaintiffs. “When the encampments opened, the people of Minneapolis sent air mattresses, food, water, and financial aid to help us. The city, whose job it is to take care of people, sent bulldozers and police with pepper spray.”

The city of Minneapolis, for its part, has directed millions of dollars toward housing assistance and creating new shelters even as its revenue streams plummet because of the pandemic. Hennepin County is also spending $1.6 million per month to house about 500 people in hotels in order to limit the risk of an outbreak in its shelter system. The county also recently used federal coronavirus relief aid to purchase properties to turn into transitional housing.

Diegel, the ACLU lawyer, said that emergency shelters were just a Band-Aid and that the government must start investing in long-term solutions by providing permanent affordable housing.

Court filings tell the story of Henrietta Brown, who moved into a tent in Peavey Park after being turned away from full shelters. One morning, police arrived before dawn and in the pouring rain. Brown said in court documents that with bright flashlights in her face, police told her she had to leave and then bulldozed the encampment and threw her tent into a garbage truck.

“I lost so much,” Brown said in court documents. “I couldn’t understand why the police couldn’t realize that what the camp residents have in their tents is all they have. We don’t have anything else.”

Crews cleared a homeless encampment in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis where at one point more than 300 tents were pitched. Most people moved before sanitation crews loaded abandoned belongings into garbage trucks. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been especially hard on people experiencing homelessness, and the approaching cold of a Minnesota winter brings its own brutality on those living outdoors.

In a statement, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board said that parks do not provide dignified shelter and decried some of the allegations in the lawsuit as untrue, stating that staff attempt to find encampment residents alternative shelter before removing them. Park officials are also concerned about fires and the presence of propane in parks during winter.

But residents of encampment say there also isn’t a dignified alternative.

“We are being told it’s unsafe for us to stay in the parks because of the cold, but the shelters kick us out during the day,” wrote one of the plaintiffs in court documents. “With COVID, all of the libraries and coffee shops where I could usually spend the day are closed so I’ll have nowhere to spend time during the day when it’s cold outside. At least if I was in a camp I could spend winter days in my tent, where I’m sheltered from the wind and have access to blankets and a sleeping bag.”

In a statement, Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader said that the lawsuit was misguided.

“Their action today incorrectly and unjustly asserts that [the] plaintiffs have a constitutional right to exercise personal property and privacy interests on public lands to the exclusion of others’ interests in the use of those same lands, particularly in the face of mounting evidence that real threats to safety and health of plaintiffs and other members of the community continue to grow and persist by the continuance of remaining encamped in public parks and spaces,” the statement said.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, the increasingly visible homelessness crisis inspired a vast network of volunteers, who brought in meals, rudimentary medical care and security. But the encampments have also strained mostly low-income neighborhoods in south Minneapolis, which were already reeling from the destruction caused during the civil unrest.

Local leaders initially supported the encampments, with the Park Board declaring parks a “sanctuary” and providing portable toilets and hand-washing stations. As the encampments swelled, their size overwhelmed volunteers, outreach workers and local officials.

But in trying to break up encampments they deemed dangerous, the city and park system found themselves often in physical standoffs with activists and residents who fought the forcible evictions.

“The manner in which they raid the encampments—treating residents, like Plaintiffs, as if they are garbage and destroying their belongings as if worthless—is unconscionable and unjustifiable,“ said the plaintiffs in court filings.

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The lawsuit seeks a court order prohibiting future clearing of encampments and the destruction of property, and aims to establish a five-day notice period for any confiscation of property, along with a 90-day window to retrieve it.

As of last week, the Park Board estimated there were 222 tents set up in 14 parks throughout Minneapolis.

Also participating in the lawsuit is the organization Zakat, Aid and Charity Assisting Humanity (ZACAH), founded by cardiologist Bilal Murad. In a press conference Monday, Dr. Murad said that he and his physician colleagues were providing free medical care to people experiencing homelessness at Powderhorn Park, many with underlying health conditions placing them at risk to COVID-19, such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, heart failure, and diabetes.

Murad said that after the police sweep of the encampment, he was unable to find encampment residents who needed follow-up care.

“There is a reason the top public health officials in the country have recommended localities do not sweep encampments during this pandemic,” said Murad. “There’s a non-zero chance that some of them have actually lost their lives or become seriously ill.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that encampments not be cleared unless people can be moved into safer housing like hotel rooms.

Gov. Tim Walz’s peacetime emergency initially blocked local authorities from sweeping encampments, but he later revised that order under pressure from local leaders to allow it for encampments that pose serious health and safety risks. Outreach workers say that action effectively repealed the order since virtually all encampments can be considered dangerous to people’s health and safety.

The lawsuit seeks class action status on behalf of anyone living on public property in Hennepin County in the past, currently, or in the future, and has been assigned to Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright. A court hearing has been scheduled for October 22 at 1:00 p.m.