Kenwood Park is a square mile of green located on the north end of Lake of the Isles in south Minneapolis. I circle that park several times a week on one of my daily walking routes. On Tuesday, just after the July 4th weekend, I had a surprise.
A scattering of small tents had sprouted on the north end of the park over the weekend. Perhaps a dozen or more temporary dwellings, neatly arranged, were suddenly visible. I eyed the intruders, as I thought of them, as I passed nearby. I was careful to keep my distance and to remain on the walking path.
The following day, a small new camp, (well, OK, one tent) had appeared on the south end of the park. Now I was drawn inexorably into the drama of the development. How would it grow? What would it mean for the neighborhood? Was it yuppies trying to make a point? Who was living in these tents? Were we going to be picking their trash up on Douglas Avenue near my house, four blocks away?
Full disclosure here: Although I am currently elderly and somewhat of a curmudgeon, I did my share of demonstrating back in the day. I showed up to oppose the Vietnam War with Another Mother for Peace, demonstrated against the development of the Monticello nuclear plant, joined others to ride buses in a snowstorm to try to persuade the Metropolitan Council to expand affordable housing. So protest is no stranger in my life. Still, this felt vaguely threatening. But why?
I was curious but not quite willing (or brave enough) to invade the camp to find out more about the intentions of these new denizens of my neighborhood. But as I passed by on the third morning two men were standing on the walking path near trash bins and I engaged them in conversation. Were they living in the camp? One was, the other had helped organize it. What was it all about? People had been displaced by the recent riots and needed housing.
They were friendly and directed me to a woman who was seated in an open tent at the edge of the others. Her name was Angelique and was of Native American heritage.
Angelique did not live in the encampment. She has a house, as does her daughter Maria and her children. Maria, who has been involved for some time in the Native American community, is one of the organizers of this project. Her mother was helping out.
A 20-minute conversation with Angelique was most instructive. Nothing I had assumed was actually the case. This was not a protest movement. The camp was temporary, set up for people who were waiting for affordable housing. The necessity of camps has grown out of the homelessness that increased after the riots and demonstrations in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death.
Many things Angelique said surprised me. Most of those who are currently living in these tents go to work. They are not there during the day. All are on a waiting list with the county for affordable housing. One of the problems with being homeless is that if you don’t have an address, you cannot get the identity cards that will enable you to apply for county aid. In other words, without an address, you cannot be put on a waiting list that will give you housing and — thus — an address.
With the help of Hennepin County workers, Maria and Angelique were able to get a P.O. box for people to use as an address. With this, people in the camp who previously had lacked identification to be put on the county’s list for affordable housing now were able to join those lists.
Angelique informed me that drugs and alcohol were not allowed in the Kenwood encampment and offered the opinion that allowing those had led to the problems at the Powderhorn Park encampment.
At this point in our conversation Maria arrived on her bike and cycled into the camp. She clearly exercises responsibility for this development. We had a brief conversation in which I offered my help in any way I could.
I left the park and continued my walk, musing on how different the reality of what I saw was from what I had imagined two days earlier. Far from the younger generation setting up tents to make a social and political point (think Occupy Wall Street) this group of people, both those who used the tents and those who were helping them, formed a community of need. And far from a blight on the neighborhood, this loose-knit, unofficial social organization could teach us all something about life.
Everything that has happened this year in Minneapolis belongs to all of us. We need to understand who we are as a community and how we can share in our common life.
Judith Koll Healey lives in Minneapolis.