Davonte Lambert stared at the crowd gathering nearby as he plucked another empty plastic bottle from the grass.
“We have absolutely nowhere to go. They know,” he said Wednesday, motioning to the group led by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and police Chief Medaria Arradondo as they toured the homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue with news cameras in tow.
Like others who called the temporary village of tents near East Phillips Park home, Lambert, 26, had fallen on hard times. At the moment his biggest worry was hustling up the money to buy a tent with enough room for him and his girlfriend to sleep comfortably. Moving into a nearby shelter wasn’t an option, he said, because it doesn’t accept couples.
But he perked up when he spotted a familiar face in the crowd: Sgt. Grant Snyder, whom he recognized from recent afternoons the veteran police detective had spent at “Tent City,” handing out peanuts and muffins to its surprised residents.
In fact, he says he’s noticed a change in how other police officers treated the area’s homeless.
“A lot of different police officers come around, it’s not just him specifically,” Lambert said.
It’s part of a fledgling outreach program for the vagabond or homeless population, led by Snyder, the longtime face of the department’s anti-human trafficking efforts, in partnership with established social agencies like St. Stephen’s Human Services and the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.
On Wednesday, Snyder led the tour through the encampment, dispensing food and hugs and listening as people shared their problems — from the lack of affordable housing to the perils of living on the streets.
Too often, the voices of the city’s neediest residents go unheard, said Snyder, whose Elliot Park office is crammed with boxes of water bottles, luggage and feminine hygiene products that he distributes to those in need.
Still, he admitted that it’s too early to say whether the new approach is a success.
One resident, Tony Martin, said that Snyder had intervened on his mother’s behalf after a period in which she was repeatedly harassed by officers patrolling the area.
“Sgt. Grant, he’s really been a lot of help with my mom,” the 23-year-old said.
Others spoke of a warming in the historically chilly relationship between police and the homeless.
According to a 2015 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, city officers disproportionately arrested people experiencing homelessness for low-level crimes. Many of the crimes were for such offenses as drinking in public and panhandling, which the report’s authors pointed out were associated with “not having a home.”
And earlier this year, the department abruptly ended the use of undercover stings for low-level marijuana offenses downtown after the Public Defender’s office complained that police were mainly arresting low-income and homeless African-Americans.
The unwanted police attention had lessened in recent months, residents said.
Like with many departments nationwide, Minneapolis officers have undergone training that emphasizes de-escalation techniques in dealing with people who are homeless, suicidal or in the throes of a mental-health episode.
Arradondo said that the move comes at a time when law enforcement officers nationwide are rethinking their approach to such intractable social problems as homelessness. The change, he said, is most striking in the language police once used to describe the homeless: “vagrants and transients.”
“And that was not by accident,” Arradondo told reporters. “It was a way to dehumanize them and it was a way to really make them invisible.”