The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on Wednesday night voted to limit the homeless tent camps that have sprung up across the city’s parks, including the two sprawling encampments in Powderhorn Park.
The unanimous vote sets boundaries to a previous resolution passed by parks leaders a month ago that allowed the homeless to stay overnight in parks in response to the growing Powderhorn encampments. The Park Board will designate a select number of parks for encampments and disband any others that are not permitted.
Before Wednesday’s vote, dozens of residents complained at the Park Board meeting about the homeless encampments, arguing the parks had become dangerous for visitors, surrounding neighbors and the campers themselves. They said they had become the site of constant drug use, violence and other illicit behavior.
They also noted significant issues at Powderhorn, where sexual assaults, fights and at least one shooting have been reported in recent weeks. Volunteers have scaled back their presence in the eastern camp and begun moving out some residents to other parks.
Commissioner Londel French, who has become a constant presence at the Powderhorn encampments, said the board “may have bitten off a little bit more than we can chew” by allowing the tent camps.
“Everybody decided to write these folks off, and we tried to do the right thing. Lord knows I tried, the neighbors tried, volunteers tried,” he said. “But now we have a situation where people aren’t safe. And that bothers me.”
Wednesday’s approved resolution will limit encampments to 20 designated parks and 25 tents. Volunteers, nonprofit organizations and other entities would have to apply for a temporary permit to legalize an encampment; those without permits would be disbanded.
It was still unclear Wednesday what parks would be designated “refuge sites,” and when people would need to start moving out of larger encampments. Board President Jono Cowgill said parks staff would follow several guidelines when selecting sites, including proximity to playgrounds and schools and making sure there was proper distance between tents to stave off potential coronavirus contagion.
Other commissioners were skeptical of how well the plan would work and where homeless residents would go. Commissioner Brad Bourn said it seemed unenforceable and reneging on a promise.
“Some of these encampment residents really relied on President Cowgill’s and the board’s word that we’re providing a safe space for them,” he said. “Less than 20 days later, we’re telling them you don’t have to go home — because you don’t have one — but you can’t stay here.”
Under the amended resolution, Park Board Superintendent Al Bangoura would also be able to limit or close encampments that pose a documented risk to safety under Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order declared during the coronavirus pandemic.
Homeless residents have consolidated their encampments over time. While tents were seen at more than 40 parks in the past, they are now at about 30, according to the Park Board’s latest count. The Powderhorn sites have also shrunk from a high of 560 tents last week to 310, according to the board.
Parks officials reiterated the need for additional help from the state and other agencies to house park dwellers and provide them resources. Employees have collected hundreds of syringes at the encampments and at times have been threatened by campers.
“Staff has expressed a grave concern for their safety,” Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Barrick said. “The morale continues to be low, and these challenges are not helping it.”
Many of those who initially migrated to Powderhorn Park were evicted from a former Sheraton hotel that volunteers had turned into a shelter in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
Residents who spoke out at Wednesday’s meeting said the sites had grown out of control and that the Park Board, while well-intentioned, was not equipped to help the homeless.
Sheila Delaney had volunteered at the Powderhorn encampments and before that at the former Sheraton shelter. At the meeting, she said she was afraid for her safety and was severing ties with the volunteer group in charge.
“[The Park Board] made a very reasonable assumption that the jurisdictions that have statutory responsibility for caring for the unsheltered would come in and do their job,” she said. “They didn’t, and here we are.”
Powderhorn volunteer Kat Eng said others have helped pack up tents at the encampments and driven people to other parks. Volunteers have pulled back their round-the-clock presence at the eastern encampment and are now providing only food, water and other basic services.
“We really have been asking over and over when will any responsible government agency be able to provide some sort of actual solution to people living unsheltered in Minneapolis parks,” Eng said.
One resident who lives across the street from Powderhorn Park said the Park Board needs to find a humane way to disband the encampment.
“Everybody’s lives have been disrupted,” said Bethann Barankovich, who has lived by the park for 25 years. “We have no recourse. We feel hopeless and despaired.”