Powderhorn residents try to keep peace as concerns over violence grow

Tents are seen from across a lake.
The Minneapolis Park Board estimates there are now about 560 tents at Powderhorn Park, seen here June 19.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

As the camping population has grown, Minneapolis park police are reporting a marked increase in crime in Powderhorn Park. Police arrested suspects in the sexual assault of a girl last Sunday and the rape of a woman the previous Sunday. A similar attack June 26 remains under investigation. Officers have responded to numerous domestic violence incidents at the park as well.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted three weeks ago to allow people without permanent addresses to camp indefinitely at all city parks. At the time, there were about 180 tents at Powderhorn. Now there are about 560 tents.

Lisa Clemons, an anti-violence activist and former Minneapolis police officer, said park commissioners made their decision without a plan to help people, particularly those struggling with drug addiction.

“When you have two juvenile females raped, an adult female raped, domestic violence with a knife and the suspect has an arrest warrant for sexual assault, you have a problem in that park. They’re just not owning that they have a problem in that park,” Clemons said.

Last week, the park board tabled a resolution that would require residents to vacate by Sept. 1 and limit camps to just 10 tents at 10 parks. Commissioner Londel French urged his colleagues to volunteer at Powderhorn and get to know the people there.

“There are some real issues about sanctuary, and I think the way we fix those issues are by having conversations with not only the neighbors and homeowners who live around Powderhorn, but some of the residents of the sanctuary and come up with some solutions to some of the issues that we’re having,” French said.

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Patrick Berry has been living at Powderhorn for the last 10 days. He’s 41 and has been homeless much of his adult life because of bipolar disorder that was diagnosed only recently. Berry said residents are doing their best to defuse potentially violent situations.

“Instead of trying to escalate a situation immediately to violence, we try just simply to mellow it out. Hey, could I give you a cigarette? Hey, do you want to have a talk with me about this? I see that you’re really upset. Why don’t we just walk away from this and have a talk,” Berry said. “We’re trying to keep the peace here. That sort of thing.”

An encampment along 14th Avenue South in Minneapolis.
An encampment at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis on June 17. Last week, the park board tabled a resolution that would require residents to vacate by Sept. 1 and limit camps to just 10 tents at 10 parks.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Berry said the camp residents are in an untenable situation that can only be resolved with affordable, permanent housing.

“But the immediate action is we’d like the women and children cleared out first because those are our most vulnerable residents. And we’re worried. As much as anyone else is, we are worried,” he said.

Minnesota’s unsheltered population has doubled in the last five years to about 1,600, a problem that the COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded, according to Cathy ten Broeke, who leads the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness.

“At its core, it’s a housing issue. We have a lack of housing that people can afford, and their income can’t keep pace and in many cases it’s complex. And people need some supports to go along with housing,” she said.

Ten Broeke said the park encampments have brought a new level of visibility to a crisis that she hopes will spur state lawmakers to pass a $260 million bonding request for housing when they return for another special session on Monday.