Park Board limits size, number of homeless encampments

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.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will limit the number and size of homeless encampments and drastically reduce the size of large tent camps at Powderhorn Park in a reversal of last month’s decision to declare all parkland a “refuge” for unsheltered people. 

Park commissioners voted unanimously July 15 to limit encampments to 20 parks citywide and cap the number of tents in each encampment at 25. Each encampment would require a permit that can be issued to volunteers, nonprofit organizations or government entities that would be responsible for oversight. Non-permitted encampments will be disbanded. 

“Large encampments are completely untenable and unsafe not only for the people living there but for people living nearby,” Park Board President Jono Cowgill (District 4) said. 

The Park Board tried to do the right thing when it voted to declare parkland a refuge for unsheltered people in June, said At-Large Commissioner Londel French, but the situation at Powderhorn has become unsafe.

“We may have bitten off a little more than we could chew,” French said. 

French, who spent a lot of time at the Powderhorn encampment, said he hopes residents will press other government entities to help house the people. 

Before the vote, dozens of residents of the Powderhorn neighborhood told commissioners they felt increasingly unsafe in their neighborhood and felt the park was dangerous for inhabitants, volunteers and local residents.

There have been reports of physical and sexual assault in Powderhorn and at other parks, according to Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto, including a man exposing himself and a fight where a man was pistol whipped at Kenwood Park. Assistant superintendent Jeremy Barrick said staff have expressed concerned for their safety and that morale is low. 

The original resolution would have exempted Powderhorn Park from size limits, but a unanimously approved amendment from board Vice President LaTrisha Vetaw removed that exemption. 

“I want all our parks to be treated the same,” she said. 

It remains unclear which parks will be home to permitted encampments and where in those parks the encampments will be placed. Right now, MPRB staff say there are encampments in 29 parks, ranging from just over 300 tents in Powderhorn to small groups of three tents elsewhere. In Southwest, encampments are in place at Lake Harriet, Lake of the Isles, Lyndale Farmstead, The Mall, Martin Luther King Jr. and Kenwood parks. Kenwood Park currently has the second largest encampment in the city, with 21 tents. 

Some commissioners are skeptical that the permitting process will be successful or enforceable. 

“My question is, what’s our plan?” Commissioner Kale Severson (District 2) said. 

He said there should have been a list of which parks camps will be placed in before a vote took place. 

MPRB assistant superintendent Michael Schroeder said staff have been trying to determine which parks are most suitable for encampments. The ordinance stipulates that only 10% of any given park may be dedicated to camping areas, and an amendment to the ordinance will prohibit encampments within school zones. Schroeder said the plan is to create “buffer zones” between encampments and popular park assets to ensure access for park users and create more privacy for inhabitants. The desire further limits which parks can host encampments and where those encampments could be. The current tent group at Lyndale Farmstead, for example, would have to relocate from its location near the Theodore Wirth home to areas in the southwest portion of the park. 

Permits will be available starting July 16. Once a permit is obtained, the MPRB will place portable toilets and other amenities at the site within 48 hours. The limit on 25 tents per site would include any tents used by volunteers to distribute goods and tents residents use for storage but don’t sleep in. The permitted encampments would be subject to park rules surrounding alcohol, tobacco and narcotics use. Police enforcement to remove non-compliant camps would be a “last resort,” staff said. 

Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6) fears the Park Board was putting too much bureaucracy into being homeless. 

“I think some of our expectations might be unrealistic,” he said. 

The resolution continues long-voiced Park Board calls for the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the state to assist with finding a dignified solution for people staying in parks. 

“We know the Park Board is not the agency to solve this crisis,” Superintendent Al Bangoura said.