More than 500 tents are spread across two encampments in Powderhorn Park, but the number of people living there according to a recent survey of its residents is far fewer: 282. The encampments have swelled in Powderhorn Park and in other parks across Minneapolis since the Park Board approved a resolution on June 17 declaring park land a refuge for people experiencing homelessness.
Of those surveyed, 45% said they were Native American, according to the recent census taken by Avivo, a nonprofit social service agency. Native Americans are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness, comprising 1% of Minnesota’s population but 13% of its homeless population. Native people are even more likely to be living in encampments as opposed to shelter for a variety of cultural and historical reasons.
Just over half — 52% — of those living in the encampment say they are disabled. That figure tracks with the most recent study from Wilder Research, which reports 57% of homeless people have a chronic physical illness and 64% have a serious mental illness.
Avivo, with funding from the state, conducted the survey of the encampments over the course of three days beginning June 30 to find out who was living in the encampment, where they were living before moving to the park and what services they needed.
“The most important reason for this survey was to find out who is there who needs to be connected to resources that they don’t currently have a connection to,” said Emily Bastian, Avivo’s vice president of chemical and mental health.
Since the survey was conducted, volunteers with the newly formed “Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement” have begun helping people move from Powderhorn Park to other parks in an effort to form smaller, safer encampments. Those volunteers are currently providing meals and other resources at a handful of other parks including Kenwood Park and Brackett Park.
Nearly 40 parks across the city currently have encampments, according to the Park Board, although just only half a dozen have more than a handful of tents. The Park Board, volunteers and homeless outreach groups are calling on state and local government to come up with a plan for winter but none has come into focus yet.
The American response to homelessness is made up of a patchwork of federal, state, local and municipal programs that require social workers to help navigate.
For example, Avivo wanted to identify veterans who are eligible for special housing vouchers (5% of those surveyed said they were veterans.) Others may have come to the top of Hennepin County’s waiting list for housing but have been unreachable without a phone number or stable address.
Some tribes in Minnesota also provide housing support that its citizens may be eligible for. Avivo is currently providing services to more than 200 people it was able to house from the 2018 Franklin-Hiawatha encampment through a partnership with the Red Lake Nation.
Before the survey was conducted, the Minneapolis Park Board estimated 800 people or more could be living in the two encampments in Powderhorn Park. The overestimate illustrates how hard it can be to guess the number of people living in an encampment, especially as encampments age because tents are abandoned by those who move out and others may be set up for storage.
Large encampments also attract people who are not homeless as a place to get meals or other resources and to be with friends or family.
“People want to be together. And there’s solidarity in that,” Bastian said. “I’ve heard from talking to some residents that it also feels like a show of political will.”
Large encampments also easily become places for drug use, sex work and exploitation. The size of the Powderhorn Park encampments has made it especially volatile and dangerous for people living there and the surrounding neighbors. At least three sexual assaults have been reported in the encampment, as well as multiple reports of domestic violence, drug overdoses and fights.
The Avivo survey of Powderhorn Park found the encampments there are 61% men, 37% women and a small number of transgender people, who are among the most likely to experience homelessness. The age of the encampment roughly follows a bell curve with 60% of people being 26-45 years old, 9% are people ages 18-25 years old and 12% are those older than 55.
Hennepin County has made a concerted effort since the beginning of the pandemic to move people older than 55 years old, who are more likely to become very sick if infected with COVID-19, into hotel rooms. Nearly 600 people, mostly seniors and those with compromised immune systems, are currently living in hotel rooms across the county, at a cost of $3 million per month. The county is currently looking into buying hotels for people experiencing homelessness with money with federal coronavirus response aid.