A Republican state senator questioned why leisure campgrounds remain closed while some homeless people can continue to seek shelter in tents amid the coronavirus pandemic, sparking intense criticism from Democrats.
In a video posted to Twitter Tuesday, state Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, referenced a “nice little tent city set up here” in St. Paul, before appealing to Gov. Tim Walz to “open up campgrounds in Northern Minnesota.”
“How is camping on the streets of St Paul any safer then your family camping up North?” the tweet accompanying the video read. “Time to safely open up campgrounds in MN.”
The freshman legislator cited the Boundary Waters as one of a number of “beautiful places we have to go up there that are currently off limits,” arguing that campgrounds have plans to open safely and that Greater Minnesota communities are “by our nature” practicing social distancing. He acknowledged the plight of those living without permanent shelter, adding “it’s also unfortunate this is how our homeless people have to live right now.” Eichorn deleted the tweet and video within hours of posting.
A number of state Democrats denounced the video and called on Eichorn to apologize. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter called the video "disgusting," while the Senate DFL Caucus issued a joint statement criticizing his comparison between homelessness and camping as "insensitive, uncaring and callous."
Rep. Michael Howard, a Richfield Democrat who is the lead sponsor on housing assistance legislation, characterized the statement as out of touch. “Senator Eichorn used homeless Minnesotans as a prop, but what is most distressing is that someone with the privilege of serving our state doesn’t seem to care that many people don’t have a safe place to lay their head tonight,” he said.
Eichorn issued a statement Tuesday evening saying the video was his “attempt to convince the Governor to take heed of the dismal economic conditions folks in my district and across Minnesota are facing,” citing struggles in the tourism, timber and mining industries.
“The video may have missed the mark, but Governor Walz’s blanket extension of the stay-at-home order only exasperates the pain that my constituency feels,” he said.
Advocates for the homeless have expressed concern that housing insecurity amid the economic downturn and fears of the virus spreading in crowded shelters are pushing more people to sleep on the street. Four local hotels are now temporarily housing more than 500 homeless adults with underlying health problems as part of an effort to prevent outbreaks in the wider community. An estimated 1,600 unsheltered people sleep outside in Minnesota each night.
State campgrounds remain closed under Walz’s stay-home order curtailing nonessential businesses and activities. Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness announced Monday that they will allow day trips.
Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.