The coronavirus has created new and urgent challenges for Minneapolis, including its ability to find safe housing for homeless people, protect the public health and keep our city parks clean and safe for all to use.
Recently, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board took careless action that, instead of solving these issues, actually made matters worse. It will put people, parks and public health at increased risk.
The Park Board, led by President Jono Cowgill, has agreed to allow homeless camps in city parks. If residents wonder why they didn’t see this coming, it’s because the board resolution happened off the public radar. The topic was not on the board agenda, there was little awareness even among the elected park commissioners, and it came without any transparency to the public.
Minneapolis park settings are not equipped to serve large groups of people. People need running water, toilets, basic electricity, trash collection and access to refrigeration. Families need access to shelter during summer’s severe weather. Most concerning of all — there is no security for the families who shelter in our parks.
Since the Park Board gave the green light to encampments in city parks, we’ve seen at least 200 tents in Powderhorn Park and dozens more in the Midtown Greenway, Hiawatha Avenue, W. River Road and the Commons Park. We should expect those numbers to grow quickly because this resolution has no limits. People from all over the state or even from outside Minnesota can move into Minneapolis parks. With these growing numbers, safety in parks is a real problem.
In fact, there have been two sexual assaults involving two different encampments in less than a week. The first was on June 19, when a woman was sexually assaulted at the encampment in the Commons Park, near U.S. Bank Stadium. The second was on June 25, when a juvenile victim was sexually assaulted at the encampments in Powderhorn Park. The juvenile was hospitalized, and both crimes are being investigated by the Park Police.
Cowgill and others on the board have incorrectly argued that Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order 20-55 mandates that camps cannot be removed or dismantled from parklands. In fact the order makes no such mandate. The order allows the police to disperse encampments in order to protect people from injuries and crimes. Clearly, dismantling camps in order to protect the public from disease and sexual assaults is permitted. The board also took this action despite the fact these camps violate a number of existing laws.
The Park Board has a history of dysfunction since it was sworn in with six new members two years ago (cronyism, absenteeism and neglect of commercial contracts). Minneapolis residents both housed and unhoused deserve better leadership and should hold these leaders accountable.
Joseph Tamburino, of Minneapolis, is an attorney.