At the closure of a large homeless encampment in Minneapolis' Harrison neighborhood last month, a police officer on a loudspeaker counted down the minutes until people needed to vacate.
As inhabitants scrambled to collect their things, a frantic volunteer shouted at a column of officers pointing crowd dispersal weapons, "Is there anyone not from the Police Department here to help these people?"
Minneapolis has stopped notifying encampments when they'll be closed, citing protester interference and violence against city staff. Instead, crews arrive under heavy police gaurd in the early morning, before emergency shelters open. Storage carts are no longer distributed. Tents are crushed and thrown away. Those expelled are left rudderless in the street.
St. Paul is grappling with a similar homelessness crisis using a different approach — and getting different results. The capital city carries out encampment closures under a detailed policy that requires advance notice, and nonprofit service providers work with city staff to de-escalate tensions and help people relocate. Police presence is minimal.
"I used to think about homelessness like a black hole, this thing that's so complicated there's no solution to it. It was demoralizing," said Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher. "In partnership with a lot of smart people who have worked in this space for years ... we're on a path now to figure out how we're going to close those gaps."
'Outreach teams don't want to be there'
Minneapolis has an internal Homeless Response Team, which visits encampments daily to connect residents with county services. But they've been kept in the dark about recent closures, according to a source close to the team who wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
Nonprofit outreach workers aren't notified either, said Emily Bastian, vice president of ending homelessness for the nonprofit Avivo.
"When the evacuation is done with police presence, and very forcibly, the outreach teams don't want to be there," she said. "I think we could have a very different response but … the most recent closure, I learned about it while it was happening from Facebook."
The closures have inflamed protesters, who've disrupted City Council meetings and demonstrated outside Mayor Jacob Frey's home. The city has alienated the nonprofits whose job is it to provide emergency shelter and find long-term housing for those living on the street. Fraught council debates reveal a city leadership divided on how to establish better practices.
In lieu of an encampment response policy, the city has referred to its ordinance prohibiting the use of tents as shelter.
"Encampments are illegal as individuals are trespassing and occupying space owned by someone else," said city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie in a statement. "They also create health and safety risks for people living there as well as the surrounding community. The decision to close an encampment is informed by a multi-departmental team assessing real-time data, operational procedures and best practices."
A cluster of closures last month made it difficult for outreach teams to help people being displaced, said Michelle Perrin of Agate Housing. The city has since convened a working group of service providers to repair coordination.
Mike Goze of the American Indian Community Development Corporation, which runs the culturally specific shelter Homeward Bound, said he has long advised the city to adopt a more data-driven approach by tracking who lives in encampments and what their barriers are to accessing housing. He has urged the city to help small encampments before they grow to unmanageable sizes and become attractive targets for drug dealers and sex traffickers.
"I'm willing to have conversations and be part of a different outlook, but I have not been asked to do that on a regular basis," Goze said. "Unless there's a change of what we're going to do, I'm not interested."
'A sustainable solution'
In St. Paul, 115 people were camping in roughly 50 tents over the past four months, according to the city's Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART).
Homeless encampments are also illegal in St. Paul, and a publicly available city policy establishes standard procedures for closing them when they grow too large and hazardous.
"We need to approach individuals who are struggling in encampments, experiencing homelessness, like they are residents," Tincher said. "When you take a very individualized approach, it just takes a little bit longer. But our hope is that it's a sustainable solution."
St. Paul's closure of the 60-resident Lower Landing encampment in June was one of its biggest enforcement actions, said Andrea Hinderaker, HART program coordinator. Mayor Melvin Carter was prepared to make a statement on site if things got tense. At the end of the day, only two potential protesters showed up to watch while Catholic Charities workers helped people pack and HART drove them where they wanted to relocate, she said.
"There was no chaos, there was no crisis," Hinderaker said. "Even if you don't support what's happening, you can't really fault the process."
The city's approach includes the police mental health unit, a social work unit embedded in the fire department and the Office of Neighborhood Safety. HART gives a weekly public report on the location, population and dynamics of encampments.
Though city policy requires 72-hour notice of a closure, officials typically give encampments at least a week, Hinderaker said. Outreach teams use that time to intensify services.
Typically there are just two police officers present at a closure, said St. Paul Police Commander Kurt Hallstrom. The city assigns officers to coordinate with the Department of Safety and Inspections, and they check in with encampment residents weekly in preparation for the day of closure, he said.
"We don't just take officers off the street and say, 'Today this is what you're going to do,' " Hallstrom said. "You have to put the work in with these occupants ahead of time instead of just showing up the day of and not knowing who they are."
But friction remains. Not everyone displaced from an encampment has somewhere to go, said Ryan Rasmussen, an outreach worker with Radias Health. Ramsey County's Safe Space shelter fills up. Catholic Charities holds a lottery for beds each night. There are fewer spaces for women than men, and nothing senior-specific.
At the same time, emergency shelter beds go unused each night, said Keith Lattimore, Ramsey County's director of Housing Stability.
There are people who have too many possessions to store in a shelter locker, can't sleep in a congregate setting or don't meet the standards for programs reserved for the more housing-ready. Others refuse to part with pets and partners. Some are suspended from shelters for past misconduct.
Ramsey County is working on this winter's Extreme Weather Protocol, a plan expected to include a network of warming centers linked by a shuttle. It is also trying to follow in Hennepin County's footsteps by creating a "single point of entry" — an easy way for individuals to navigate shelter openings countywide.
Limited public funding restricts progress. Ramsey County received $6 million from the state to support its housing services through this winter — a fraction of the $74 million it requested for the next 3-5 years, Lattimore said.
'Let's get this right'
Minneapolis had an estimated 26 encampments in mid-October, up from 16 at the end of last year. The city does not provide stats on how many people are living in tents citywide, referring to Hennepin County's last "point-in-time" census showing there were fewer than 100 people in encampments in January. That number fluctuates wildly — a single encampment in the Midtown Phillips neighborhood numbered 100 this summer.
Codifying the city's response has been a yearlong challenge.
City Council members announced their desire to create an encampment policy in January and proceedings began in June, but there have been no updates since it was referred to staff. The city posted a flowchart in August outlining the encampment closure process, though Council Member Jason Chavez wrote in his newsletter that he has "personally witnessed the failure to abide by this process."
A majority of council members voted in October to collect data on the cost of current practices and research better ones. The mayor vetoed the measure on a wording technicality, and the council failed to override the veto.
While council members are divided on what to do next, most say they believe something needs to change. On Thursday, they agreed to revisit the encampment issue in committee, and on Friday, Frey released a statement saying he has asked city staff to compile information that the council asked for.
"Let's get this right," said Council Vice President Linea Palmisano. "Let's improve on the things that are done here."