The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board took a step in the right direction this week by voting to restrict the homeless camps that have spread across several dozen city parks, including two large groupings of tents in Powderhorn Park. During the past several weeks, some of the camps have become havens for drug use, assaults and other illegal conduct. Some became so dangerous that volunteers seeking to help stopped going.
The encampments must be restricted and better managed, with the goal of clearing them altogether as soon as possible.
Board members sensibly dialed back their previous decision to allow the homeless to stay overnight in parks — a move that was a mistake. Parks leaders should have learned from the experience the city had with a sprawling tent community two years ago along the Hiawatha corridor. As that camp expanded, so did problems with violence, drug abuse and predatory behavior that became dangerous and unhealthy for the homeless as well as the surrounding neighborhoods.
The policy approved this week will limit encampments to 20 designated parks with no more than 25 tents each. Volunteers, nonprofit organizations and other entities would have to apply for permits to establish an encampment; those without permits would be cleared. The parks staff is working on which parks could continue to be designated “refuge sites.”
Park Board President Jono Cowgill told an editorial writer that commissioners should have “limited’’ the sites earlier. He said the parks staff will now consider several guidelines when selecting sites, involving such things as proximity to playgrounds and schools and the ability to maintain distance between tents to reduce chances of COVID-19 infections. Parks leaders will continue to work with other government and nonprofit partners to manage the sites, enforce the policy and find more appropriate shelter for those living in camps.
To that end, the city, county, nonprofits and volunteers are making dozens of efforts to help those experiencing homelessness, including setting up hygiene stations and portable toilets, coordinating public health services and delivering food and water. City leaders say they will have additional shelter space available in the coming months. This month the city and county issued a $14 million request for proposals using emergency federal funding for shelter, outreach, rapid rehousing and homelessness prevention.
While there were once tents at 40 parks, now the homeless are in 30 parks, according to the Park Board’s latest count. The Powderhorn sites also have shrunk, from a high of 560 tents to just over 300. City estimates report that between 800 and 1,000 people are homeless and living outdoors in Minneapolis.
David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, said the county’s goal is to get people out of tents and into shelters or more stable housing. He said the county has rooms available for families, as well as some shelter beds for single adults. But there still aren’t enough spaces to meet the needs.
Hewitt said the housing crisis has only been compounded by COVID-19 and the recent civil unrest in Minneapolis. And two imminent events may add to the problems: the emergency ban on evictions may soon be lifted, and additional federal unemployment payments are expected to end this month. Hewitt added that the needed outreach work involves building relationships and engaging with the homeless one-on-one to assess their individual situations and connect them with the services they need to move indoors.
While allowing the homeless to stay in city parks was well-intended, it still caused more problems that it solved. Park Board Commissioner Londel French, who has worked nearly daily at the Powderhorn encampments, said the board “may have bitten off a little bit more than we can chew” by allowing the homeless camps.
“Everybody decided to write these folks off, and we tried to do the right thing. Lord knows I tried, the neighbors tried, volunteers tried,” he said. “But now we have a situation where people aren’t safe … .’’
Minneapolis’ award-winning public parks are not campgrounds, and are not designed or equipped for use as outdoor living quarters. The multiple needs of those experiencing homelessness cannot be effectively met in tent encampments. For the health and safety of both the tent dwellers and the communities around them, the homeless must be moved out of the parks and into more appropriate shelters as soon as possible.