The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will allow homeless people to stay overnight in local parks in response to rapidly growing encampments in Powderhorn Park.
In a resolution passed Wednesday night, the Park Board’s commissioners said they were “committed to providing people currently experiencing homelessness refuge space in Minneapolis parks.” However, they stressed the need for other government agencies to increase funding toward the homelessness crisis and move those now living in parks into housing.
“We are not going to kick the can down the road, push people out of public spaces when they have nowhere else to go,” Park Board President Jono Cowgill said Thursday.
The Park Board was thrust into the middle of the crisis last week, when people living at a makeshift shelter inside a former Sheraton hotel were evicted by its owner. Some residents then migrated several blocks to the northwest corner of Powderhorn Park, pitching 25 tents by last Friday.
As of Thursday, that number had risen to about 200 tents, with encampments on both the northwest and east sides of the park. Volunteers have set up medic tents at the sites, distributed food and supplies and scheduled overnight patrols to protect the campers.
Initially, park police officers gave dwellers notices saying the camp would be dismantled within 72 hours. Since then, the board has set up more than a dozen portable restrooms, a shower trailer, more than two dozen trash bins and running water and electricity.
Park Board ordinances prohibit people from setting up tents without a permit or being in parks overnight. However, those rules were superseded by an executive order enacted by Gov. Tim Walz during the pandemic, which states that governments cannot sweep or disband encampments unless their size or status pose a documented health and safety threat.
There are at least eight other parks in the city with small encampments, officials said. Cowgill said he hoped providing a couple of other sites for dwellers would lead to smaller, more manageable encampments.
“We are in a crisis situation with the number of encampment residents that we have at Powderhorn,” he said. “This is not a sustainable, dignified solution for folks who are experiencing homelessness right now, and the state needs to step up.”
Hennepin County officials said they are overwhelmed as they first worked to help house hundreds of people relocated to hotels during the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Outreach workers with the county, as well as nonprofit partners, have been at the camp offering shelter space and providing services for people with substance abuse problems.
Don Ryan, the Hennepin County lead on unsheltered homelessness, said they have “never seen growth of an encampment like this before.”
“We’re really understaffed now that we have these new encampments that have popped up,” Ryan said. “It’s not that we aren’t prepared to work with encampments, it’s just that in this context of the last three months, we’re really in a tough spot.”
One Park Board commissioner has taken matters into his own hands.
When he first heard about the campsite that was growing on the northwest corner of the park, Commissioner Londel French came over to provide help. Now, he is working security overnight, dusting off his skills as a former bouncer to de-escalate arguments and fend off people looking to prey on vulnerable campers.
After two hours of sleep, French returned to the encampment Thursday morning, picking up some meals he said he would take to other encampments along the Midtown Greenway. He planned to be back later in the afternoon and again at night.
“The traditional shelters don’t work for some of these people,” he said. “That’s why we have this.”
French said he was proud of how Powderhorn neighbors rose to the challenge to help the campers, volunteering and bringing food, pillows and clothing. “If this happens almost anywhere else in the city, I don’t think we’d have such a positive interaction with the neighbors,” he said.
However, he was worried about how long that hospitality would last.
“This is not what the Park Board does,” he said.
Daniel Klein, a documentary filmmaker who lives with his family near the northwest encampment, said that while Powderhorn Park took in the new residents, it would take elected officials across the city to give them the support they need.
“There are many residents who are concerned about the safety of their families as well as the new residents of the park,” Klein said. “Our safeties are currently connected.”