The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board began taking steps Thursday to shrink homeless encampments at Powderhorn Park and set rules for other tent settlements around the city.
After weeks of rising community concerns about safety at encampments in city parks, the Park Board voted Wednesday to limit the number and size of the camps. The decision, less than a month after the board voted to allow homeless people to stay in parks overnight, comes at a time when the city, county and state are grappling with escalating levels of homelessness and the threat of COVID-19 infections.
“What I’m hearing more than anything right now is if people are having to move out of parks, the folks that are unhoused, where are they supposed to go?” said Park Board President Jono Cowgill.
Park Board staff on Thursday were working on a timeline for people to move out of parks, focusing on Powderhorn, whose two encampments are by far the largest in the city.
There are tents at about 30 of the city’s 180 park properties, according to the Park Board’s latest count. At Powderhorn Park, where multiple encampments reached a high of 560 tents last week — now down to 270, according to the Park Board — sexual and physical assaults, fights, robberies and more than one shooting has been reported. Thursday evening, two people were shot and wounded at an encampment in Peavey Park.
In addition to laying out criteria for designated “refuge sites” in city parks, the Park Board resolution gives Superintendent Al Bangoura the power to limit or close encampments that pose a documented risk to safety under Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order declared during the coronavirus pandemic.
“That is clearly the case at the east encampment at Powderhorn, and the superintendent is working on that as we speak,” Cowgill said.
Under the latest resolution, encampments will be allowed in no more than 20 parks with up to 25 tents each. Encampments will require temporary permits, which can be issued to volunteers, nonprofits or others that agree to be responsible for day-to-day oversight.
There will not be a predetermined list of parks where encampments will be allowed; rather, applicants will be able to select the park they want, and Park Board staff will review their application based on set criteria. Staff will consider guidelines including proximity to playgrounds and schools and space for social distancing.
Encampments will not be allowed to take up more than 10% of the “usable” space — non-water or natural areas — in a park, so some won’t be eligible based on their size and the features already there.
The number of people living outside has grown statewide, even though homelessness is down overall. According to Cathy ten Broeke, assistant commissioner of Minnesota Housing and executive director of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, there are 125 known encampments in Hennepin County and about 84 in Ramsey County.
David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, said the county’s goal is to get people out of encampments and into stable housing, adding that reducing the size of encampments is a step in the right direction.
For the past few weeks, the biggest concern has been for families with children in encampments, Hewitt said. There are about 50 private rooms available for families, he said, as well as unused shelter beds for single adults — though the number of people in encampments remains greater than the resources available.
“We are serving more people in more places than we ever have before,” Hewitt said. “This exponential growth in encampments that we’ve seen has not been accompanied by any commensurate decrease in the number of people in other encampments, or who are unsheltered in other spaces — it has just been a straight-up increase.”