A divided Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted to stop permitting homeless people to camp in city parks, ending a program that gave sanctuary to hundreds last summer but also brought complaints about violence and drug use.
In addition to repealing last summer's directives that created temporary permits for encampments, commissioners directed staff to create a new Unsheltered People Policy.
Last June, about 200 tents sprang up in Powderhorn Park amid Gov. Tim Walz's emergency eviction moratorium, and the Park Board offered sanctuary to all homeless people. A month later, there were nearly 40 encampments in parks citywide with some hosting nearly 300 occupants.
Public backlash to overcrowding, violence and discarded needles soon grew so loud that the board unanimously voted to claw back the number of encampments to just 20 parks with no more than 25 tents each, subject to temporary permits.
The Park Board's permitting process has been suspended for the winter, when people camping outside face life-threatening risks.
On Wednesday, commissioners voted 5-3 to cancel encampment permits altogether and let agencies that specialize in human services, such as Hennepin County, take the lead on serving people living in the parks, with the Park Board providing backup when needed.
"It focuses the attention of the Park Board on being part of collaborative solutions with all of our partners, as opposed to focusing on how we maintain or manage encampments," said Park Board President Jono Cowgill, who voted for the resolution per staff's recommendation. "In the past, the Park Board stepped up in a way that they could, but this was not something that was in our direct wheelhouse."
Over the past year, the Park Board has been inundated by passionate demands from activists for more resources to serve homeless people and from neighbors who felt it had created a situation the board was unprepared to manage.
Minneapolis resident Courtney Sanders recently petitioned the Minneapolis Charter Commission to disband the Park Board and incorporate parks into city government. Sanders, who spoke during public comments at the Park Board's regular meeting Wednesday, blamed commissioners for several sexual assaults, shootings and homicides that occurred on parkland last summer.
In 2009, some elected officials tried to amend the city charter to take over the Park Board but failed.
Commissioners Londel French, AK Hassan, and Kale Severson voted against the resolution that ended the encampments, but they did not discuss their reasons during the public meeting.
Later in an interview, French explained he still believes the Park Board has an obligation to homeless people after committing to provide sanctuary last June. He faults other government entities for not doing enough to transition people into long-term supportive housing.
"That didn't happen," he said. "Everybody said, 'This is what you wanted to do. You're on your own.' And we kind of got left out in the cold by agencies whose job it was to actually take care of this stuff."
The Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, Heading Home Hennepin, city staff, park staff and volunteers worked together last year to find shelter beds for park residents. The Park Board incurred $713,856 in encampment expenses in 2020, with $373,350 coming from Minnesota emergency response funds.
The Unsheltered People Policy may be ready for public viewing next month, Cowgill said.
Susan Du • 612-673-4028