Parks still a refuge for unsheltered people

Public health, safety concerns at Powderhorn encampment

Encampment in Lyndale Farmstead Park
Encampment in Lyndale Farmstead Park. COVID-19 and addressing encampments of unsheltered people in parks has brought on additional costs for the park department.

In a small group of tents on the south end of Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Kingfield, a group of unsheltered people has started to feel comfortable.

Sisters Nikki and Lola Stand have been staying in the park for just over a month. The neighbors have been kind and supportive, they say, and outreach workers from St. Stephens are trying to get them into an apartment. Living in the park, they said, is much better than sleeping by the highway or being inside the large encampment at Powderhorn Park to the east.

“We feel safer here than we do anywhere else,” said Nikki Stand.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) voted to designate parkland as a refuge for unsheltered people in June, a move that granted permission for tent encampments citywide. On July 1, a divided board of commissioners voted to remove an item from their agenda that would have placed limits on the number and size of encampments at city parks and ended the designation of parks as “refuges” starting in September.

That vote was sparked by the emergence of Minnesota’s largest-ever homeless encampment at Powderhorn Park, which began after people were removed from a former Sheraton hotel that had served as a temporary refuge during the unrest.

Since the Park Board voted to declare parkland a sanctuary for unsheltered people, the camp has swelled to contain more than 500 tents. A state-funded survey conducted by the nonprofit Avivo recorded 282 individuals living in the encampment as of July 2, according to Minnesota Housing communications director Jill Mazullo, a number that has public health officials concerned. Early MPRB estimates using a 1.5 person per tent framework had placed the figure between 600-800 people. Even with much lower figure recorded in the survey, the encampment remains the largest in state history, Mazullo said.

The resolution would have led to the dispersal of the Powderhorn encampment and would have limited groups of unsheltered people staying on parkland to 10 parks, with no more than 10 tents allowed at each location. It also would have ended parkland’s “refuge” status on Sept. 1. Commissioner Londel French (At-large) requested the resolution be removed from the agenda, a motion that passed on a 5-4 vote.

Several residents of the Powderhorn Park encampment spoke at the meeting and asked for Park Board and city officials to not disperse residents, because constantly moving makes it harder on unsheltered people. Many asked for a more permanent housing solution. Others asked the board for more time for residents and volunteers to organize a safer community there.

Outside of Powderhorn smaller encampments have emerged in more than 30 parks citywide, according to MPRB Superintendent Al Bangoura. Some of those encampments are informal, like the small group in MLK, while others, like an encampment that has developed near Bangoura’s residence in Lyndale Farmstead Park, are direct offshoots of the Powderhorn Park community.

Bangoura said MPRB staff are trying to meet the basic needs of people living in Powderhorn and other parks. The organization is spending about $18,000 per week on portable toilets, electricity and staffing at those sites, he said, but is not equipped to help residents.

“We are woefully unqualified to provide the health and human services people in the park need,” Bangoura said.

Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto said there have been reports of physical and sexual assaults at Powderhorn and other encampments throughout the park system. He said the past two weeks have been “extraordinary” and unlike any time in his career in park policing. There have been three rapes reported at Powderhorn Park, according to the Star Tribune; one incident of rape was also reported at an encampment at Washburn Fair Oaks Park in Whittier and one at The Commons in Downtown, Ohotto said. At an encampment on The Mall in Uptown, park police have responded to fights where crowbars and hatchets were used, he said.

French and Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6) cautioned against sensationalizing the crime in the encampments at a time when violent crime has increased citywide.

Aaron, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native who asked his last name not be printed, stayed at an encampment in Lyndale Farmstead Park over the Fourth of July weekend. He said he’s staying in the park as he figures out his next move. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Southwest encampments

At MLK Park, the encampment is small and portable restrooms have not yet been added. Nikki Stand said they walk down to 46th Street to use the bathroom. For the most part, the group has felt safe at MLK, though Stand said she was physically assaulted by a stranger there one night.

Chuck Anderson had been staying at the park until about two weeks ago, when he suddenly felt ill and was taken to the hospital, where doctors found a cyst blocking blood flow to his brain and had to remove it immediately. Anderson stayed in the hospital for 10 days, and while Catholic Charities helped him find housing when he was discharged in late June, he returned to MLK Park on June 30 with a long band of stitches bisecting the top of his head to check on the Stand sisters. Residents around the park have gotten to know them, Anderson said, and neighbors have been kind and generous.

“We feel comfortable around here,” Anderson said.

A few blocks west in Lyndale Farmstead Park, about 10 tents have been erected and volunteers are accepting donations to meet resident needs.

The Lyndale Farmstead encampment is composed of people who had been staying in Powderhorn Park, but were seeking a less crowded environment, according to Danielle Enblom, who volunteered at the Powderhorn encampment. She said the group of volunteers has used the same mutual aid structures in place there to establish the group at Lyndale Farmstead, which was chosen in part because of its proximity to Powderhorn. She said they reached out to local churches and businesses before making the move and have largely been supported by neighbors. The plan is to keep the encampment small. The group receives a lot of dry food and beverage donations but is in constant need of warm meals for breakfast and dinner, as well as weatherproofing items like tarps, she said.

Speaking the afternoon before the July 1 Park Board meeting, she said she was hopeful the refuge would not be rescinded by the board. Volunteers have also moved some people from Powderhorn to Kenwood Park. While she knows parks can’t be a long-term solution, the land does provide temporary relief.

“Having public parks as an option right now is really important,” Enblom said.

A ‘big task in front of us’

David Hewitt, who leads Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, said Powderhorn Park is about twice the size of the 2018 encampment at Franklin & Hiawatha, which was previously the largest homeless encampment in state history. He said large encampments always pose a risk for residents due to dangers of potential sex trafficking and infectious disease, which was a concern before the coronavirus pandemic and is a bigger fear now.

“Large encampments, as a general rule, we consider very dangerous, particularly to the people living in the camps,” Hewitt said.

Hennepin County has a right-for-housing policy for families with children, and right now has about 50 residences available for unsheltered families through People Serving People and St. Anne’s Place. He said he “desperately” wants families who are living in Powderhorn and other parks to come there to receive housing and assistance from trained staff.

Breaking up the large encampment at Powderhorn Park and spreading people to smaller encampments in the area would make it easier to provide more services, Hewitt said.

Parks officials have stressed the need for other government entities like the county, city and state to help find a solution that gives people a dignified place to go. The struggle now, Hewitt said, is that unlike 2018, when the Franklin & Hiawatha encampment was the major issue facing the area, there are multiple crises to manage. The county has already been providing more funding and services than ever before for unsheltered people during the pandemic, including operating its own shelters for the first time and placing more than 500 high-risk individuals in former hotel spaces the county board purchased. The main issue, Hewitt said, is that the county’s trained staff is already stretched thin. The process of finding out who is staying in the encampments and figuring out what options are available to those people will take time, he said.

“This is a big, big task in front of us,” Hewitt said.

Park Board President Jono Cowgill, who authored the resolution limiting encampment size, said people staying in the parks must be treated with dignity but said the size of the Powderhorn encampment is not sustainable.

“Right now, the Powderhorn space is not a refuge because it is not a space where everyone feels safe,” Cowgill said.

Cowgill has been in conversation with other government partners about solutions but said he hasn’t heard any firm commitments on action steps at this point. He said he will try to bring forth a resolution most commissioners will support at the July 15 meeting.

Mayor Jacob Frey said he did not agree with the decision the Park Board made. He said the city does not have the resources to house and serve 600 people at once, and that the size of the Powderhorn encampment is concerning.

“In its present state and in the direction that it’s going, it’s not safe,” Frey said.