Homeless encampments allowed in city parks

The Minneapolis Park Board voted to allow homeless encampments in city parks on June 17 in response to a large gathering of unsheltered people that has developed at Powderhorn Park.

Between 150 and 200 tents have been erected in Powderhorn Park, according to parks Superintendent Al Bangoura. Many of those people came to the park after a Sher- aton Hotel that was temporarily converted into a shelter during the civil unrest removed them in early June. It is now about the size of the “Wall of Forgotten Natives” encampment that was established near Franklin & Hiawatha in 2018, according to David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. The resolu- tion designates parkland as a “refuge” for unsheltered people. Previously the MPRB has not allowed people to camp on parkland.

“I’m not willing to kick people out until we have a dignified solution,” said Commissioner AK Hassan (District 3), who represents the area.

Bangoura said park staff have opened the bathroom facilities at Powderhorn Park, which had been closed due to coronavirus, in addition to bringing in shower and handwashing facilities and about 17 portable bathrooms. The services are costing about $7,400 per week. Bangoura stressed that MPRB staff are nature and recreation professionals and that help from partners will be needed.

“The level of physical care required of encampments and associated facilities is beyond the capability of park staff,” he said.

The resolution was added by Park Board President Jono Cowgill. Hundreds of residents, organized by community groups like Parks and Power, submitted written comments to the board, asking it to support the resolution and not disperse the encampment. Commissioners are hoping a real solution will be reached soon.

“We realize that this is not a permanent solution, so we are asking the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and State of Minnesota to step up and find a sustainable, dignified housing solution for folks who are experiencing homelessness right now,” Cowgill said. “In the meantime, we are not going to push people out of public spaces when they have nowhere else to go.”

Hewitt said the county is less equipped than normal to support a large encampment because of the work it has been doing to try to move people into hotel rooms during the coronavirus pandemic. He said the larger the encampment becomes, the greater the health risk there is to residents.

“Especially in a pandemic environment, having so many in such close proximity really heightens the concerns I would have anyway in regard to large encampments,” Hewitt told commissioners.