As human waste piled up near a growing homeless encampment in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, local residents, business owners and City Council Member Jamal Osman begged multiple layers of government for a portable toilet for its occupants.
Ushered from one agency to another, they eventually got the port-a-potties after six weeks with the intervention of a state legislator.
"This was such a ridiculous experience, to be constituents of all these levels of government and just to be feeling completely crazy," KJ Starr, director of the West Bank Business Association, said before a community meeting Friday at the Brian Coyle Neighborhood Center.
"In the shadow of a billion-dollar stadium, we couldn't get a port-a-potty. ... No one wants to take responsibility," she said.
A tangle of governments holds a stake in what happens at the Samatar Crossing encampment at S. 7th Street and 15th Avenue, named for a nearby bike and pedestrian connection. A short distance from U.S. Bank Stadium, it is one of 28 encampments that the city tracks, and one of four in the Sixth Ward.
Osman estimates there have been dozens of such homeless sites in the ward since 2020.
The encampment popped up during the State Fair, grew to some 70 occupants by October and continues to expand despite the deepening snow.
It sits on property belonging to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT); Metro Transit runs the nearby Cedar-Riverside light-rail station. Any attempt by MnDOT to clear its property might force campers into adjacent Currie Park, where they would come under the jurisdiction of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
Osman blamed the poor response to the request for portable toilets on the lack of governmental coordination at the site. MnDOT threatened to seize any port-a-potty placed there, said Osman aide Sean Broom, who fielded a deluge of complaints as the encampment's residents were forced to relieve themselves in buckets after the Park Board closed its nearby public restrooms for the winter.
Even though city sidewalks and boulevards encompass the MnDOT property, city staffers put off supplying toilets because they wanted the state to assume the expense, said state Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis.
The city and state eventually worked together to deliver two portable toilets last week.
Minneapolis spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said city officials insisted the state pay for the port-a-potties. "
This specific site shows the clear need for a coordinated, regionwide approach to address the homelessness crisis, as many different jurisdictions are often involved," she said in a statement.
But community members aren't satisfied. They said the struggle to obtain toilets revealed deeper problems with the way government responds to people living on the street — along with the city's low-income, minority neighborhoods that typically carry the brunt of the homelessness crisis.
The problem is acute: According to Hennepin County officials, 27 people called Adult Shelter Connect for an emergency bed Sunday night. Seven were turned away.
Despite social work by the county and its nonprofit partners, Cedar-Riverside residents say they still don't know who's in charge of addressing their concerns.
"I have never been ashamed to say I worked for the city of Minneapolis before this," Broom said. "The disregard for human dignity and providing the bare minimum for those who need it most should shame and embarrass everyone involved in this ... from the governor on down."
McKenzie urged neighbors and encampment residents to direct questions first to state officials and then to Hennepin County.
People at Friday's community meeting included interim Metro Transit Police Chief Rick Grates, who said his agency is using significant resources cleaning and policing the Cedar-Riverside Station. Local property managers described people living in parking ramps and breaking into apartment buildings to shelter in the stairwells.
"How long is this going to take? Who is in charge?" asked Amano Dube, director of the Brian Coyle Center. He said the center and surrounding businesses are letting people use their restrooms, but that it isn't a long-term solution.
"These are human beings," Dube said. "They have circumstances that put them in that [situation], but they are human beings and they're Americans. I don't think that the state or our government lacks resources to commit. It is about not wanting to do it, for some reason."
The objective of Friday's meeting was to set in motion a multijurisdictional response to the Samatar Crossing camp that doesn't force its occupants elsewhere, as other encampment closures have done. But community members left without any promises as to who would take responsibility.
No one from MnDOT attended the session, but department spokesman Jake Loesch said Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger has committed to meeting with Osman's office soon.
"Because MnDOT's jurisdiction is not embedded in housing or social services, the agency is always coordinating with city and county partners on the most comprehensive and timely response to best support people experiencing homelessness," Loesch said.
Mary Jane LaVigne, who runs the House of Balls art gallery across the street from the camp, said residents have largely respected her and the gallery. But she said tourists don't visit anymore. She said she finds galling the city's recommendations that property owners near homeless encampments hire private security and put up fencing.
"Even just suggesting that business owners should be the ones to provide for our unhoused neighbors is unconscionable, and I don't want any other business owner to be told that," she said.
"We need a coordinated response. That is not the responsibility of private individuals."