Citing urgent public health concerns, Metro Transit authorities are moving to contain the spread of a large and growing homeless encampment near the light-rail line in south Minneapolis.
Over the past month, a small camp consisting of about a dozen tents on a narrow stretch of land along Hiawatha Avenue has swelled to more than 100 homeless men and women. Many of the tent dwellers at the site, known as “Camp Quarantine,” said they are fearful of catching the coronavirus and feel safer sleeping outside than in crowded shelters where physical distancing is nearly impossible.
But the rapid growth of the encampment has alarmed Metro Transit officials and nearby property owners, who say the tightly packed tent village and lack of hygiene facilities make the area ripe for the spread of the virus. To limit the camp’s growth, Metro Transit officials this week ordered the construction of a fence to surround the perimeter of the grassy site — tucked between a wooded ravine and a heavily used bicycle path. At the same time, the agency said it is closely monitoring conditions and is considering the possibility of clearing out the encampment if it becomes too big a health and safety risk.
“Larger encampments can be problematic because they can foster dangerous activity and, in this time of disease, can be even more dangerous,” said Charlie Zelle, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees the transit agency.
Officials said they want to avoid a repeat of a chaotic scene two years ago near Franklin and Hiawatha avenues, when several hundred people erected tents along a highway sound wall and stayed there for months. Despite a massive outreach effort, drug overdoses were a near-daily occurrence at the sprawling site, known as the “Wall of the Forgotten Natives,” and some humanitarian aid workers were subjected to threats of violence and harassment. It would eventually cost the city of Minneapolis about $3.2 million to move people to a temporary shelter for the winter.
The early inhabitants of Camp Quarantine said they moved to the site largely to isolate themselves from the virus and to maintain some stability.
In the early days of the pandemic, many libraries and other public buildings shut their doors, leaving homeless people with nowhere to go during the day. The camp offered an opportunity to “stay at home” away from crowded shelters. Their fears were heightened by reports of COVID-19 spreading through area shelters. Despite aggressive efforts to reduce shelter capacity and increase cleaning, 44 shelter residents statewide have tested positive for the virus in the past month, including 37 people in Hennepin County alone, state health officials said.
There are 88 known encampments in St. Paul, according to Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, who is leading a homelessness work group made up of public officials. The county is collaborating with direct service providers and St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) on a response, which has included providing portable toilets and hand-washing stations to four encampments.
One encampment, near the Minnesota History Center grounds, has officials particularly concerned about the spread of COVID-19 because of its proximity to the Dorothy Day campus, MatasCastillo said. DSI Spokeswoman Suzanne Donovan said in an e-mail that city staff estimate there are 10 tents and about 10 people living at the site.
Camp dwellers have been emboldened by an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz that barred local agencies from sweeping homeless encampments, because of concerns that dispersing homeless people could increase the spread of COVID-19. However, amid pressure from local authorities, Walz last week issued a significant revision to that order, allowing camps to be cleared if they “reached a size or status” that pose a threat to the health and safety of residents.
“We are still in process of evaluating the most recent executive order and considering next steps, including how we might alter our process to evaluate sites on a case-by-case basis during the pandemic,” Donovan said.
‘Everyone watches everyone’
Angela Hunt, 33, who has been homeless for three years, said the Minneapolis camp has become “a sanctuary” from the dangers and isolation of living on the streets.
One night last winter, Hunt said, she was sleeping in a parking garage near the Mall of America when a drunken man attempted to sexually assault her. The constant movement and stress was also taking its toll: Each day, Hunt had to pack her few belongings and find a new spot to lay her head. “It’s less dangerous here than out on the streets,” Hunt said as she cleaned up around her tent. “I can get a full night’s sleep. Everyone watches everyone.”
Yet the crowded nature of the camp has become a serious concern, even among its inhabitants. Many tents are just a few feet apart, and the site lacks certain basics to ward off infections — including hand sanitizer, a source of clean water and easy access to showers. Some inhabitants wash up near their tents, with water poured from plastic jugs and heated on camp stoves.
Officials hope the fence will keep people from moving into the site, but some outreach workers said the money would be better spent on sanitation supplies and moving people into stable housing.
“A fence is just a fence. It solves nothing,” said Keiji Narikawa, who works at a homeless shelter in northeast Minneapolis and was dropping off supplies at the camp. “I’d rather see a focus on the health and safety of people living here.”
For nearby business owners, the encampment has become a growing source of frustration and anxiety.
Rick and Cindy Siewert, who own a cabinetry and lumber shop in a building next to the encampment, said the camp initially appeared peaceful. Then two weekends ago, Rick smelled smoke while he and an employee were loading a trailer on their lot. Shortly after, he saw flames rising over the piles of wood in their lumberyard. They rushed over to swat the blaze with blankets and pieces of wood before firefighters arrived to put it out.
An encampment dweller told an employee he had accidentally started the fire by dumping leftover coals on the grass. They spent the next weekend raking grass and picking up litter — anything that could catch fire again. “It’s very risky for our livelihood and our business, if there were to be another fire,” Cindy Siewert said.
Rick Siewert said he has seen extension cords running from his building to the camp and has picked up several used drug needles over the past week. He was disappointed with Metro Transit’s decision to fence off the encampment, which he believed would not make a difference. “What happens if the COVID stuff starts going through that place?” he asked. “That’s going to be a disaster.”
On a bright afternoon this week, the camp appeared peaceful and orderly. A woman staying at the camp was caressing a wounded rabbit that she found under the nearby pine trees. Many camp dwellers wore masks and kept bottles of hand sanitizer in their tents. Disposal containers for used drug needles were scattered throughout the site.
Few paid attention to the public works crews that had arrived to begin drilling holes for the new fence. Once the gate is erected, Metro Transit Police Department officers will monitor the area for criminal activity and restrict people from erecting more tents. City officials said they plan to install a hygiene station at the site with more portable toilets, hand-washing stations and trash receptacles.
Jennifer Hernandez, 40, a homeless mother and one of the camp’s first inhabitants, watched the buzz of activity as she rinsed her blistered feet in a plastic tub of water. She had just moved her tent to a more secluded spot on the edge of the site to protect herself from the virus.
As the sun faded, she expressed hope that the fence would keep out the “criminal element,” as she called it, that had begun to infiltrate the camp at night to steal belongings.
“There are too many people coming and going who are preying on the vulnerable,” Hernandez said. “It’s important to remember, this is our home.”
Staff writer Emma Nelson contributed to this report.