Just past midnight, Fred Smith walked the northwest side of Powderhorn Park looking for signs of trouble.
Most tents in the Minneapolis homeless camp had gone dark. Some people quietly clustered around as a middle-aged man stripped down to his boxers next to a kiddie pool. “You trying to cool off?” Smith asked. Stepping inside, the bather said he was.
Smith turned to walk back to his post, past the tents that sheltered a man in a wheelchair and a 70-year-old woman who walks with a cane. A guy stumbled by and held out his arm for a fist bump. “Probably tipsy,” said Smith, a volunteer security guard who moved to the camp last week. “But he’s ‘quiet drunk,’ so we don’t mind that.”
As public officials and homeless advocates raise alarms that the settlement is neither safe nor sustainable, the hundreds of people settling in tents across Powderhorn Park are devising a community of their own. The encampment’s continued growth comes as police are investigating a third sexual assault at the park in less than two weeks, rattling some neighbors already worried about increased crime and other illegal behavior.
Volunteers dole out food and supplies at all hours, and inhabitants band together to pick up trash and police the park. They are trying to forge more hospitable surroundings than the shelters and streets that many campers know well.
“When this first started, I assumed it would fall apart in two weeks — just be patient,” said Peter Gross, who lives across the street and has had to cut down on his twice-daily walks in the park. “It’s sticking together more than I thought.”
Tonya Rainey, 47, and her daughter Julia Rainey, 29, stayed at the Wall of Forgotten Natives, a camp set up in 2018 at Hiawatha and Franklin Avenues where they saw people openly doing drugs. After that disbanded, they scratched out a life on the streets. Tonya said she stopped going to homeless shelters after she was raped there, and knows many women who have been assaulted in shelters.
As blasting car music punctuated their stories, the Ojibwe women described how hard it was to find housing with Tonya’s criminal history and Julia’s rental evictions.
“I don’t even want to look now … I don’t want to get told no,” said Julia, who was writing “homeless” on a piece of cardboard to solicit donations off the street later. “I’m afraid of rejection, I guess.”
Tonya said the government should be here to find people housing, counseling, addiction treatment, job services or assisted living. “I don’t have another winter in me,” she said. “I would just like to be in a home somewhere, comfortably living my life.”
Hennepin County’s Healthcare for the Homeless team and other outreach workers are trying to connect people in Powderhorn Park and other city encampments to housing, shelter and other services, “but that is hard, person-by-person work and they have never been more stretched,” said David Hewitt, director of the Office to End Homelessness, in an e-mail.
He said the county wants to get all families out of encampments and inside as soon as it can. But the number of tents in Powderhorn Park and around Minneapolis has rapidly grown since the Park Board opened all parks to homeless camps last month. Many homeless people migrated there after they were evicted from the former Sheraton Minneapolis Midtown Hotel, which became a makeshift shelter during the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.
Some neighbors, social workers and elected officials have said it is not safe for a population that includes people with mental illnesses and addictions. Mayor Jacob Frey has called the encampment “untenable.” Last Friday, the Park Board narrowly voted down a plan to drastically limit the size of the tent settlements.
During a walk through the camp this week, Park Board Commissioner Londel French said he worries outsiders will prey on people here, and questioned why other government agencies could not spend the money to house them.
“We spent millions of dollars to send people down here to put down an uprising and … you can’t spend millions of dollars to come in and house folks?” he said. “You’re not prioritizing the most vulnerable.”
Some park inhabitants say that living in Powderhorn Park is more freeing than their old homeless shelters that made them leave every morning, served unsavory food and sometimes tested for alcohol when they returned. Here, they have space. There are fewer rules.
“It was always something at the shelter — fighting, overdosing, people getting stabbed, police always there,” said Kenneth Sullivan, 33, who receives disability insurance. “ … Here, we don’t have a curfew. We can be who we are.”
He’s working with a nonprofit to find housing but said many others are not looking for a home or job because “as long as they have this and freedom, that’s all that matters.”
People in the park borrow books, receive free massages, and play volleyball and cards. It’s common to see them sitting around talking in circles of chairs, picking up trash, hanging their clothes on lines between trees, brushing their teeth on benches and sharing food. Jared Brewington, owner of former restaurant Funky Grits, dashed around on a recent afternoon to serve his chicken salad sandwiches. The homeless hold community meetings in the evenings.
The east and west settlements are divided by a field that forms a deep valley, where kids play soccer.
On the east side, 41-year-old David S. said he knows the other campers here have his back. Residents here are taking care of their own, he said, and drug addicts like him follow a code to only get high in privacy and not hurt others.
“I like to get high and chill and kick it and live free … I’m high as hell right now,” said David S., who went to federal prison for drug charges stemming from a case in Gary, Ind. The Star Tribune partly identified him so he could speak openly about his actions. “I just smoked some weed, did some meth. I was around people smoking heroin. So what?”
He voiced determination to stay and build a community with other homeless people.
Smith, for his part, is eager to leave as soon as he can. He moved to the park last week after a family dispute and layoff from his job in pest control. For a man who had always had work and a home, living wide-open days in the park took some getting used to. Smith woke up the morning after his 46th birthday to the sounds of drunken carousing.
Days after moving here, he interviewed for a new job. While sorting out his future, Smith agreed to serve as one of many volunteers patrolling the camp from 12 to 4 a.m.
The early hours of Tuesday marked his first shift stationed at the medic tent, where he was charged with watching the two young volunteers. “Everything’s OK down here,” he reported into his walkie-talkie after his stroll on the west side.
He rose from his chair every 30 minutes to make the rounds. About an hour later, a woman known to have a mental illness sobbed loudly about her children as she walked down a path behind a man pushing a cart, but there was nothing Smith could do.
As a Black man, Smith faced police brutality in his former state of Illinois. He’s glad that officers are not dominating security at the park because he doesn’t want people arrested or beat up for behavior “that could be talked down. They go too far.”
Smith’s shift passed uneventfully. Many campers rose early. “Once that sun comes up, that [tent] is an oven,” said Smith.
Residents lined up for an egg bake and coffee. “Excuse me, more orange juice!” said a volunteer, hauling jugs to the food tent. People crowded near a supply closet with questions: Were there any more donated backpacks? How about hair ties? A flashlight?
Thunder rolled across the sky, dispelling the cheeriness of a new morning. People scattered back to their tents as rain exploded, forming mud and puddles across the uneven terrain. When the downpour subsided a little while later, residents assessed the ruins: a mattress left outside, belongings soaked by water that had seeped through tents.
“Not every day,” said Smith, surveying the scene, “can be a happy day.”