Police are investigating a third reported sexual assault in less than two weeks at Powderhorn Park, where hundreds of homeless people are encamped in growing numbers with no immediate prospect of finding a more permanent place to live amid a rise in dangerous incidents.
The assaults are the most serious of the many crimes committed there since people starting putting up tents on June 10 on the expansive park south of E. Lake Street after they were evicted from a hotel.
On June 17, the Park and Recreation Board voted to allow homeless residents to stay overnight at city parks. Yet it has struggled to maintain order in the Powderhorn encampment. The number of tents on the northern end of the park has surged from 415 to 560 in the past week, the board reported Tuesday. The board estimates there are more than 800 people living there.
On July 1, a divided Park Board rejected a plan that could have restricted homeless encampments in parks across the city. That would have included the Powderhorn tent community, now the largest in state history.
Four days later, the most recent of the assaults was reported to police after a man attacked a girl, said Park Board spokeswoman Robin Smothers. The girl required hospitalization, and Hennepin County Child Protection Services has stepped in. An arrest was made, and charges are pending.
The first of the three incidents occurred late on June 26 or early on June 27 and involved a girl being victimized, Smothers said. People from the park brought the girl to Abbott Northwestern Hospital for examination, and she was later turned over to social services personnel. No arrests have been made.
Later on June 27, a caller to 911 reported a woman being assaulted at the park. The woman received medical attention, and city police arrested 40-year-old Jonathan Taylor nearby. He’s charged with groping the woman in their tent. He’s also charged with raping the same woman on May 22 in a Brooklyn Center hotel.
Junail Anderson, whose Freedom from the Streets community organization is assisting with one of the encampments, said sexual assaults “can happen in any park.”
Anderson said that while people staying in Powderhorn Park are keeping tabs on one another and holding nightly meetings to discuss any common issues, the city needs to step up and help find places for them to live.
“We’re hoping and praying that the mayor listens to us,” Anderson said. “If people are worried about people being preyed on, then give us housing we can afford.”
Mayor Jacob Frey addressed the recent trouble at the park during a webinar late last week with the Minneapolis business community.
“Obviously, the encampment has grown to an untenable size,” Frey said. “In its present state and in the direction that it is going, it’s not safe, and the truth is that there is an infinite need for services.”
Carlos Losano Enrique, who calls Powderhorn Park his temporary home, said, “I see a lot of arguing but no fighting.” Two days ago, he said, someone broke his car’s windshield, but he’s not ready to leave yet.
“The reason I am here is because I need a house,” he said. “I came here the first day they opened, and I have been here for almost five weeks.”
One multiunit property owner whose building is within 100 feet of the encampment is frustrated by what she sees as good intentions toward the homeless that have opened the door to increased crime and risks to public health.
Susan Viergever said some of her tenants “have had their cars broken into and their [homes’] windows tampered with, to name a few incidents. … Our residents are moving out. Yes, taxpaying residents are moving out of Minneapolis because there is no one protecting their rights to a safe neighborhood.”
While acknowledging the city’s potential to offer a good quality of life, “allowing mob rule and the homeless to pitch a tent in any city park, use drugs and assault children — while receiving taxpayer funded electricity, facilities [and] cleaning — is very concerning.”
The board has been accommodating many hundreds of homeless people who have migrated across Minneapolis to roughly three dozen parks in the midst of the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25. Most of the parks have five or fewer tents, while five have 10 to 15.
The Park Board has officers patrol its properties across the city from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily and intends to keep to that schedule, Smothers said. During the remaining hours, as has been longstanding practice, city police handle 911 calls about park incidents, said Minneapolis Police Department spokesman Garrett Parten.
From June 1 through June 17, park police logged 15 incidents at Powderhorn Park called into 911. From June 18 to June 29, there were 45 such calls, the board reported.
Park police have dealt with, among other incidents, assaults with blunt objects, a fentanyl overdose and someone being chased by others with guns and baseball bats.
In one instance, according to board records, police went to check on a suspected stolen vehicle and saw that it was occupied by three people. The vehicle was towed, and inside it were “needles everywhere, and [it] smelled like vomit.”
Park maintenance staff are also struggling to get their work done safely, the board said. In addition, the portable toilet contractor said it needs either police or additional staff to keep encampment occupants from going through vehicles while its employees are servicing its units.
“We feel powerless,” said Viergever, whose rental property sits near the park’s northwest corner. “We cannot protect our tenants. We have lost hope in the future of Minneapolis.”
Staff writer Matt McKinney contributed to this report.