Minneapolis Park Board holds off on reducing size of encampments

An encampment along 14th Avenue South in Minneapolis.
An encampment along 14th Avenue South in Minneapolis on June 17, 2020. It is one of two encampments in Powderhorn Park.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

The Minneapolis Park Board is trying to determine a path forward for hundreds of homeless people who are living in city parks. The camps continue to grow after commissioners last month agreed to provide “refuge space,” but the board set aside a plan to limit the encampments after getting pushback from residents and activists.

During the unrest after the police killing of George Floyd, around 200 people struggling to find permanent homes found shelter in the Sheraton Hotel near the Midtown Greenway. After they were ordered out in mid-June, many headed a few blocks south and pitched tents in Powderhorn Park.

Patrick Berry, 41, is staying there. At a public meeting Wednesday, Berry told commissioners that his situation is far from ideal, but he’s grateful for the community he’s found at the park.

“I woke up this morning and had access to resources. There was a shower. There was a place to use the bathroom. There was clean food. There was clean water,” Berry said. “And where the city, state, county and federal government have failed, the community of the south side came together.”

Over the last three weeks, the two Powderhorn encampments have grown to an estimated 400 tents. After the park board voted June 17 to allow them to remain, other encampments have sprung up in Loring, Lyndale Farmstead and more than two dozen other Minneapolis parks.

As the encampments have grown, so have concerns about sanitation, COVID-19 and safety. A juvenile was sexually assaulted at Powderhorn last week.

When word got out that the board’s meeting agenda included a proposal to limit camping to 10 tents each at 10 city parks and require everyone to vacate by Sept. 1, residents and their allies mobilized.

At Powderhorn Wednesday before the meeting, Commissioner AK Hassan said he opposed scaling back camping unless there’s a long-term solution.

“The city and the county need to come up with a plan, then I’ll be in favor of it. But we can’t just move around our unhoused and homeless people who stay in our parks, who feel safe here,” Hassan said.

Commissioner Steffanie Musich said the Powderhorn encampments’ size may violate an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz, even though it generally discourages police from clearing homeless camps.

“With the violence that has occurred, and what we know about the coronavirus and the precautions required to keep people safe, are we in violation of that executive order at this point?” Musich asked.

Park Board Superintendent Al Bangoura noted that any encampment larger than 10 tents does not comport with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

But on a 5-4 vote, commissioners tabled the proposal to limit camping.

However, the board did discuss the growing expenses of the encampments. Commissioners approved spending an additional $500,000 for portable toilets and handwashing stations, nearly three times what they’d originally budgeted. And they agreed to seek reimbursement from the state of Minnesota and Hennepin County.

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