Hours after the Minneapolis City Council asked staff Friday to find an alternative site to move dozens of homeless people camped in tents, new potential relocation sites began to emerge.
Mayor Jacob Frey is suggesting that the Hiawatha encampment residents relocate to a 1.5-acre property owned by Red Lake Nation at 2109 Cedar Av. S., the former home of Amble’s Machinery and Hardware. Frey said the relocation site is backed by 10 American Indian tribes.
“There is almost a beautiful symbolism that simultaneously, when clouds were parting, we were also beginning to arrive at a potentially beautiful option,” Frey said while visiting the site Friday afternoon.
Accompanied by several tribal leaders and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, Frey said the city would move quickly to demolish three buildings to make way for temporary shelters.
Council Member Andrew Johnson said city staff are also looking into the Hennepin County-owned Adult Education Center on E. Lake Street and Hiawatha. Johnson said the building could be converted into temporary housing, with a higher capacity than the other sites, and it’s adjacent to a county human services center.
“It would offer more dignified living than FEMA-style trailers on any other site,” Johnson said. “We take every option seriously and will choose the best one.”
Earlier Friday, council members unanimously decided they would need more time to find an alternative to the two city-owned properties identified by staff.
The decision to postpone the choice until Sept. 26 came over the opposition of Frey, who cited the urgency of finding better temporary housing for the people who are living in tents along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues.
“I strongly encourage us to act,” Frey told the City Council. “We have a crisis of homelessness right now, and it’s not a crisis that we can delay.”
The City Council took a preliminary 7-5 vote Thursday that endorsed the city-owned lot at 2600 Minnehaha Av. as the preferred site for a “navigation center,” where people being moved from the Hiawatha Avenue camp could live and receive services.
Representatives of two charter schools near the site packed the council chambers Friday to express their opposition, and they applauded when the council voted to delay the decision.
Council President Lisa Bender and Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said they found out the new suggested site from the media after the mayor had toured the site.
“When council members don’t have information before things become publicly available, it’s harder for us to communicate with our constituency and stakeholders,” Bender said.
“I’m glad that we decided to not move forward with the two sites that we were given to choose from,” Ellison said. “Mere hours after we were told there’s nothing else we can do, there are no other sites, a site emerged. I think that speaks to doing something right over doing it quickly.”
Council members said they are grateful to the Red Lake Nation’s willingness to work with the city and providing a potential temporary relocation site. But the city leaders said they won’t take other options off the table.
“The council is struggling because it’s faced with a very difficult, very fast-moving, very expensive decision,” David Frank, the city’s community planning and economic development director, said after the council decision.
“We work for them to try to find a choice that’s as good as they can make in the current situation,” he said. “We will be talking to them to understand how they want us to use these next few days.”
Frank said his staff spent at least three weeks looking for several relocation sites, including properties owned by Hennepin County and Minneapolis. Several of those properties were existing buildings, but Frank said they have not considered them because of time constraints and the cost of renovating them. At the end, Frank narrowed the choices down to two vacant properties owned by the city: 2600 Minnehaha Av. and the former Roof Depot on E. 28th Street.
Legal restrictions complicated the use of the Roof Depot property for anything other than public works. With the community opposition to the 2600 Minnehaha site, city officials are under pressure to find additional sites close to the encampment.
The Cedar Avenue site is only a few blocks to the east of the homeless camp.
Sam Strong, secretary of Red Lake Nation, said the band was planning to develop the property into affordable housing and a wellness center.
“We did an environmental assessment on the building, and we have already developed a development plan that basically mitigates any potential environmental concerns on the site,” Strong said.
Red Lake Nation leaders were having internal discussions about helping the Hiawatha encampment residents, he said, but decided to wait for the city to act.
“We wanted to make sure that the city had exhausted their options,” Strong said. “It seemed like today they had come to an impasse in terms of where they are going.”