How The Largest Known Homeless Encampment in Minneapolis History Came To Be

Originally published in The Appeal on July 15, 2020.
—–

On June 7, less than a mile away from where a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a veto-proof majority of the City Council gathered at Powderhorn Park and pledged to dismantle the police department and rethink public safety. A few days later, more than 200 homeless individuals were evicted from a hotel they had been using as an ad-hoc shelter, and about a dozen made their way to the closest park: Powderhorn. In the month since, many more have followed. City officials estimate more than 550 tents have been set up there, in what is the largest known homeless encampment in Minneapolis history.

Residents in the Powderhorn neighborhood initially jumped into action—determined to support their new, vulnerable neighbors, many of whom were Black and indigenous. But as the encampment grew, some housed residents’ became more exasperated, citing concerns about crime and safety. Their frustrations have gotten some national coverage. The conditions that led the encampment to form, however, and the government’s response or lack thereof, have gotten far less attention.

The homelessness crisis in Minneapolis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, is not new. In 2018, a Minnesota-based research group found over 4,000 people experienced homelessness in Hennepin County, an 11 percent increase from 2015. The researchers cited a lack of affordable units as the main driver, and found more than half of those experiencing homelessness were languishing on waiting lists for subsidized housing.

Back in the summer of 2018, an encampment cropped up alongside a Minneapolis highway sound wall, with roughly 300 people living there by the fall. “One thing that was very frustrating about the 2018 encampment was everyone talked about this great emergency, but the emergency had been going on for years,” said John Tribbett, a street outreach manager at St. Stephen’s Human Services, a Minneapolis  homeless services group. “It was just a congregation of it that forced the public to actually see it.”

Nonprofit groups and city officials supported the primarily Native residents, who are disproportionately represented among Minnesota’s homeless. But by December those living in the encampment were moved into a so-called navigation center, a first-of-its-kind experiment in the state. The navigation center had on-site social services, lower barriers to entry than many homeless shelters, and no curfew. Within six months nearly half of its homeless population had moved into permanent housing or treatment programs, though others were kicked out, incarcerated, or back on the streets. The center shut down in June 2019.

“After it closed, what we really saw was the atomization of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness throughout the summer of 2019 and frankly up until COVID,” said Tribbett, emphasizing that displacement was routine, and homeless people were regularly “on the move all the time.”

As unsheltered people were dispersed across Minneapolis, the crisis of homelessness became easier for the city’s housed residents to ignore. The Powderhorn encampment has forced the public’s attention once again.

                                                                        ****

After the tents went up at Powderhorn, the community mobilized to support their unhoused neighbors. Volunteers began organizing funds and coordinating daily meal deliveries, setting up laundry shifts, and donating blankets, water, and toiletries. They also began organizing among themselves to put pressure on elected officials for help.

While the Minneapolis Park Police told those living in the encampment they would have to evacuate, dozens of housed residents protested, and pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and an executive order issued by Governor Tim Walz urging against homeless encampment sweeps during the pandemic. The Minneapolis Park Board relented and said the encampment could stay, and five days later, on June 17, the board approved a resolution to allow homeless people to seek “refuge space” in Minneapolis parks. By this time nearly 200 tents had been set up at Powderhorn.

As time went on, some residents felt abandoned by the government and frustrated that the bulk of care duties were falling on untrained volunteers. Encampment safety concerns grew too, with at least three incidents of sexual assault taking place between June 26 and July 5, one person threatened with a knife, and several overdoses.

“Things are very tense,” said Patrick Berry, a 41-year-old homeless individual who moved to Powderhorn in late June. “When your life is in the gutter, little things can set you off. People definitely freak out at the encampment over little things.”

“As white homeowners, I think we just assumed that the government was operating at a level of competence that it’s clearly not,” said Lily Lamb, a lifelong Powderhorn resident who has been volunteering. “I’ve called my elected officials from all levels of government and their response overwhelmingly has been, ‘What do you think we should do, what are your suggestions?’”

Alex Richardson, another Powderhorn resident who has been volunteering, said although he understands some of his neighbors are anxious about security concerns, he has tried to help them recognize that these are not new problems. “It’s just that we’re seeing it now, now it’s in our front yards,” he said. “Some people have been fearmongering, or there’s a lot of shock and disbelief since they’re used to not having to bear witness.”

On July 4, residents brought tents and camped outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, demanding a more organized state-led response to the homelessness crisis. “Walz just gave $6 million in relief aid to the Minnesota Zoo,” said Sheila Delaney, a Powderhorn volunteer. “I love animals, but Jesus Christ.”

                                                                   ****

Government officials have defended their crisis response, while noting that the pandemic has put unprecedented strain on their systems. “The most critical issue is that all of our staff and services have been stretched beyond anything we’ve ever known,” said David Hewitt, the director of the Office to End Homelessness for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis.

Hewitt pointed out some things the government has done at the county level, including expanding shelter space, redeploying county staff to homeless services, and working to distribute $15 million in emergency rental assistance to prevent new homelessness. Between January and May, Hewitt added, the county moved more than 700 people from homelessness into permanent housing.

But he acknowledged their efforts “still fall woefully short of meeting the unprecedented need” and said at Powderhorn, they’ve been working to provide medical services and connect residents with housing options. “The daily increases in the number of people at Powderhorn Park are also not accompanied by any commensurate reductions in the numbers of people in other encampments or in shelter in Hennepin or Ramsey County,” Hewitt said.

Marion Greene, a Hennepin County commissioner, told The Appeal that the county has also been significantly scaling up funding for homelessness. “Normally we budget about $20 million per year, and now we’re spending an additional $2.5-to-3 million per month just on shelters,” she said. “I feel like there’s been really strong partnerships between the city, county, and state, and we’ve all been clear that permanent shelter is the goal.” The Minneapolis Park Board, for its part, said it has been providing portable toilets, trash cans, handwashing stations, and other onsite cleaning services. Today encampments are spread across 38 city parks, though Powderhorn remains the largest.

                                                           ****

The current escalation of the homelessness crisis in Minneapolis is overlapping not just with the pandemic but also with intense protests around policing and racism.

Despite making up roughly 14 percent of Hennepin County’s population, Black people represent 65 percent of those living in its homeless shelters, and 49 percent of homeless adults living in the county overall.

While a dearth of affordable housing is certainly contributing to the crisis, the lack of wealth in Black and Native communities—the result of being shut out for centuries from wealth accumulation opportunities—is another main driver. Minneapolis has one of the largest racial income gaps in the country, and Black homeownership in the city stands at one-third the rate of white families. Some federal funds flow to tribal governments, but the majority gets spent on reservation life, despite the fact that most Natives now live in cities.

One resulting consequence is that in times of need, when Black and Native individuals turn to their family and friends for help, many of their social networks struggle to absorb the added financial pressure in ways white communities more easily can. Researchers found that people of color “are not unwilling to double up, take people in, or live in another person’s home—but they do not have the capacity to accommodate the additional consumption of resources” like food and household goods. “That, in turn, strains relationships.” Less wealth means less ability to weather unexpected financial emergencies.

The criminal legal system and decades of racist policing are also notorious drivers of homelessness. Formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 more times likely to be homeless than the general public, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reports roughly 48,000 people who enter shelters every year come directly from jails and prisons. Having a criminal record can then be a serious impediment to finding housing, which can then begin vicious cycles right back into prison. One study found that people returning from prison who lacked stable housing were more than twice as likely to end up back in prison than those with stable homes.

                                                                      ****

Looking ahead, even those most supportive of letting homeless people take sanctuary in public parks recognize an alternative solution must be developed, with the freezing Minneapolis winter just months away. Policymakers are also worrying about thousands of new people becoming homeless if lawmakers start lifting eviction moratoriums and unemployment rates stay high. “The economic impacts of COVID-19 are further threatening to exacerbate these challenges,” said Hewitt, the homelessness office director.

Earlier this month, Minneapolis Park Board members considered a resolution that would have limited homeless encampments to 10 parks, at a maximum of 10 tents per park, with all encampments having to be cleared by Sept. 1. After protests, the park board voted 5-4 to table the resolution.

“It felt pretty par for the course, where they wanted to do something that seemed like they were taking action, but it was really more for their housed constituents to get the homeless out of sight,” said Richardson, one of the Powderhorn volunteers.

“It was just another set of reactive strategies, similar to the governor saying you can’t clear the encampments but providing no further guidance on what you can do,” said Tribbett, the street outreach manager.

Jono Cowgill, the park board president, told the Star Tribune he brought the resolution forward to help set deadlines, which he hoped would push the state to act more quickly. Cowgill did not respond to a request for comment.

Some advocates are pushing the city to create a new navigation center, similar to the one that shut down last year. One possible location is in a South Minneapolis Kmart building the city recently purchased, though even that would not be a long-term solution.

“A lot of people called the navigation center a success but for many Native people it was just a revolving door to the streets,” said Autumn Dillie, an outreach worker with American Indian Community Development Corporation. Dillie said her group has been pressing the county to build a culturally specific shelter for Native people. Greene, the county commissioner, said the government is also exploring the purchase of hotels as a way to provide shelter.

Lamb, the lifelong Powderhorn resident, says the last few weeks have been exhausting, and she worries about people becoming desensitized to the crisis. “The ability of humans to adapt to circumstances is extremely powerful and is working against our favor,” she said.

Delaney, one of the Powderhorn volunteers, agreed. “I think we’ve become accustomed to seeing tents everywhere, but we should all be revolted,” she said. “Especially in an incredibly wealthy state.”

Berry, who is still camping at Powderhorn, wants help, but not too much of it. “All I really need is a safe place to live where I can close my door at night,” he said. “And where no one will harass me.”