Minneapolis Park Board declares parks are ‘refuge’ for homeless

    The encampment on the east side of Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis has around 100 tents with an equal number in an encampment on the other side of the park. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

    The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board approved a resolution Wednesday declaring parks are “refuge space” for people experiencing homelessness, as two encampments in Powderhorn Park have swelled to around 200 tents in less than a week.

    After adding the resolution to the agenda Wednesday to quickly sanction the Powderhorn encampment, the Board voted 6-2 to approve. It states the park system will work with other government and non-profit agencies to find permanent housing, but will not evict people from encampments as was customary.

    “My position is that I’m not going to evict people from the parks unless I have a place where I can tell them to go,” Parks Commissioner Chris Meyer said. “I’m not willing to play whack-a-mole with people’s lives by pushing people from one park to another.”

    The pandemic and the recent unrest following the police killing of George Floyd have revealed the vulnerability of thousands of Twin Cities residents experiencing homelessness — and the flaws of a patchwork system that tries to help them. Minneapolis now has more than 100 known encampments, according to park staff.

    People living outside are typically forced to frequently move as one government agency evicts them into another agency’s jurisdiction, in a disorienting and often traumatizing game of political hot potato.

    Encampments have become increasingly visible during the coronavirus pandemic as public transit and other public places like libraries have shuttered, leaving fewer places for people to go.

    THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
    Subscribe now.

    Even before the pandemic, people living outside of formal shelter increased 62% from 2015 to 2018, according to the most recent survey by the Wilder Foundation. The increase coincides with stagnating shelter space and a persistent affordable housing shortage amid a growing population. About a quarter of the 20,000 people estimated to experience homelessness in Minnesota on any given night aren’t living in formal shelter.

    Gov. Tim Walz also initially barred law enforcement agencies from clearing homeless encampments under his stay-at-home order, in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The governor later revised the order to permit clearing encampments if they posed serious health and safety risks.

    The encampment at Powderhorn Park was slated to be cleared the morning after the first tents appeared, but the eviction orders were quickly rescinded under pressure from neighbors and activists.

    Since then, the encampment has swelled in size, and a second encampment has formed on the other side of the park. The park system brought in dozens of trash cans and 13 portable toilets, at a cost of more than $7,000 per week, and plans to reopen the bathrooms in the park.

    Community activists, who call the encampments “sanctuaries,” praised the Park Board’s resolution in a statement.

    We commend our MPRB commissioners for passing today’s resolution, while keeping them on notice that we will stay engaged and expect more than passive support of the unsheltered community,” said Parks and Power, a group that advocates for racial equity in the park system, in a statement. “Parks and Powers demands that MPRB coordinate with other agencies in the pursuit of long term solutions for residents of the Sanctuary.”

    Many of the people living there came from a former Sheraton hotel, dubbed by volunteers  Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel, which activists had turned into a shelter at the height of the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd.

    Hundreds of residents were evicted less than two weeks after the first people moved in. Volunteers failed to secure institutional funding for the effort while also struggling to manage the complex needs of people experiencing homelessness, many of whom are dealing with psychological trauma, mental and physical illnesses and chemical dependency.

    Volunteers moved their efforts to Powderhorn Park, aided by residents of the neighborhood, who are providing around-the-clock meals, basic medical care and security at the encampments. Non-profit and county outreach workers are helping residents of the encampments, but volunteers are calling for a government intervention. They say the scale of the crisis is too large to be managed by private citizens who often don’t have experience working with vulnerable populations.

    Meyer said the Park Board’s resolution doesn’t mean no one will be evicted from any Minneapolis park. Rather, he wants to see the board work toward designating certain, large parks for encampments while government and non-profit agencies find housing or shelter for people.

    park board refuge resolution
    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.