City’s first park permit issued to Lake Harriet encampment

Lake Harriet encampment organizer Michelle Smith laughs with James Rydquist, an encampment resident who formerly owned a home in Southwest before becoming unsheltered. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

On the western shore of Lake Harriet, just below the streetcar line, a neat line of tents makes up Minneapolis’ first ever formally accredited homeless encampment.

Three grills are lined up next to a well pump and a donation tent receives a steady stream of food and supplies from neighbors looking to help.

“This is like no other site,” said Michelle Smith, who obtained a permit for the encampment from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB).

Since the Park Board voted to rein back its previous declaration of parkland as a refuge for unsheltered people and establish a system for 20 permitted encampments citywide, only four sites have been approved, with Smith’s site at Lake Harriet being the first. And while other encampments — such as the 2018 Wall of Forgotten Natives camp at Franklin & Hiawatha — have been temporarily tolerated by the city, Smith’s site is the first in Minneapolis history to receive explicit approval.

Vaughn Yaints is both a resident and coordinator at the Lake Harriet site. Both he and Smith had been involved in the encampment at Powderhorn Park, but they said the original organizers lost control of the situation and they wanted a smaller, more manageable encampment.

Together, Yaints and Smith decided upon Lake Harriet because they felt it was important to make the issue of homelessness visible in a wealthy part of the city.

“We need you guys to look at this situation, so we want to put it out in your face,” Yaints said.

They were prepared to be met with resistance from locals, but that wasn’t the reality. Instead, Smith said, the people around Lake Harriet brought welcome cards and have responded with generosity and kindness.

People regularly drop off supplies. A group of local nurses checks on residents and helped everyone get tested for COVID-19 (the results came back negative). Local businesses like France 44 and adjacent restaurant Bread & Pickle have contributed donations.

Residents have locks for their tents so they can come and go without worrying about items being taken. Many shelters are dirty and unsafe, Smith said, with bad food and poor conditions for residents. She said there are many good reasons why people experiencing homelessness might want to avoid structured shelters.

“They have to have a safe place to focus so they can get out of this situation,” Smith said.

The goal is to obtain about five duplexes that people can move into and eventually own for themselves, Smith said. Her hope is that people will donate old buildings and that the groups of willing volunteers she’s met with skills in the building trades can help them renovate those spaces to create suitable homes for those staying in the parks.

“Our mission is to get these people housing,” she said.

Lake Harriet encampment organizer Michelle Smith said her goal is to receive donated buildings to house unsheltered people staying in the parks. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Smith said smaller encampments are easier to maintain and their residents can be more easily moved into stable housing. The Park Board resolution allows up to 25 tents at a permitted encampment, but Smith said she wants to maintain a lower level of about 12 residents, all of whom she and Yaints screen to ensure they will be a good fit for the site.

As of Aug. 4, the MPRB estimated, there were 413 tents in 38 parks citywide. In Southwest, non-permitted encampments remain at Lake of the Isles, Lyndale Farmstead,  Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kenwood parks. The encampment at MLK is now believed to the second largest in the city, at 36 tents. A second permit was approved for a site at Marshall Terrace Park in Northeast on Aug. 3.  Two more permits have since been approved in Southwest, at The Mall in Uptown and on the south side of Bde Maka Ska at William Berry Park. More permits are being reviewed, according to the MPRB.

The MPRB is working to reduce the size and scope of existing encampments and otherwise bring them in line with the ordinance approved by commissioners on July 17. Under that ordinance, no encampments are permitted in K-12 school zones, encampments cannot take up more than 10% of a park’s property and they cannot be located near recreational features within a park. The resolution also empowers MPRB Superintendent Al Bangoura to break up any encampment posing a public health or safety risk.

Resistance to permits

But many residents and organizers of encampments say they are opposed to the permit process.

Maria Moon Beaumaster, who leads the housing advocacy group Neechie Outreach, has been staying in Kenwood Park since mid-July and is one of the main organizers of the encampment there. The encampment at Kenwood was originally on the north side of Lake of the Isles but relocated to the northwest portion of the park at the requests of nearby residents.

The Kenwood encampment now has about 10 residents, Beaumaster said, and twice as many tents. Residents have need for more coolers, tents, lanterns, batteries and a grill for cooking.

Beaumaster said that while residents try to keep the area clean and abide by the recently passed regulations on size, she does not intend to apply for a permit. She said it asks too much of the encampment organizer and the permit concept goes against what the group stands for — the idea that citizens have a right to seek refuge on public land. The people staying in the park don’t want to be there, she said, but they don’t have better housing alternatives today.

“We’re here to make a safe and dignified space for the community,” she said.

The Kenwood Neighborhood Organization has submitted a letter to the Park Board asking for the encampment at Kenwood and other city parks to be disbanded, citing safety concerns for nearby residents and those living in the encampments.

“This is an unacceptable situation and cannot be condoned,” the neighborhood board wrote.

The Kenwood Park encampment is one of four citywide identified as posing a safety risk and likely to be disbanded, said Park Board President Jono Cowgill (District 4). The others are the western Powderhorn Park encampment and ones in Peavey Field and Elliot Park.

“I have been clear with the superintendent that the Kenwood site is a dangerous site that does warrant that action,” Cowgill said.

A man was arrested at Kenwood Park for exposing himself in mid-July, according to Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto. On July 14 a man was pistol whipped at the park and another group of men with outstanding warrants were arrested after a fight.

Kenwood Park’s proximity to a school means the encampment is ineligible for a permit, but an MPRB spokesperson said there are no immediate plans to remove residents. When the Park Board removes camps, it issues a two- or three-day advance notice to residents.

As of Aug. 2, Beaumaster said, she had not heard of any pending action. She said residents at Kenwood Park do not intend to leave. “We’re standing our ground,” she said.

Beaumaster said groups of teenagers and young adults have caused some property damage in the encampment, though most interactions with members of the community have been pleasant.

The remaining western encampment at Powderhorn was issued a 72-hour notice of transition by the MPRB on July 31, with Bangoura citing “significant on-going crime and safety concerns.” The notice informed current residents they can no longer stay in the park but does not set a firm deadline for people to leave. The MPRB says it will work to transition people and only use police if repeated efforts to disperse residents fail.

While Cowgill said he knows not everyone likes the permit process, he believes it is needed and better than ad hoc situations with no clear structure to an encampment. The fact that permit applications are coming through is a sign of success, he said.

The MPRB believes there is a “highly organized campaign” of misinformation dissuading people from applying for permits. Parks officials say encampment organizers are only liable for their own actions, not for damage done by camp residents, though organizers are responsible for documenting residents and reinforcing park rules around substance use.

Cowgill has also been encouraged by recent announcements of new funding from the state, city and county. In late July, the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County announced they will build three new shelters, largely using federal CARES Act dollars awarded to local entities. Those shelters, one specifically for Native Americans, one for women and one for medically frail people, are expected to come online within the next year.

The parks are clearly not the end-all solution to the issue of homelessness in the region, he said.

“Everybody is in agreement that getting people into stable housing is the solution and there’s a real urgency to that,” Cowgill said. “There’s a real urgency to also create safe park spaces for the people staying there and the surrounding neighbors.”

Update, Aug. 5, 9 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect there are now four permitted encampments, including The Mall in Uptown and William Berry Park in Southwest.