No easy solutions for tent camps in Minneapolis parks, county official says

Tents are seen from across a lake.
A homeless encampment in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis on June 19. Hennepin County’s senior administrator of housing stability says homelessness is driving the growth of tent camps in Minneapolis parks — and COVID-19 is making the situation worse.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated: 7:50 p.m.

Homelessness is driving the growth of tent camps in Minneapolis parks — and COVID-19 is making the situation worse, a key Hennepin County official says.

The numbers have jumped significantly in recent weeks at Powderhorn Park, where the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board says there are more than 500 tents in the park, with around 280 people living.

“It’s a straight increase in the number of people who are experiencing homelessness in our community right now,” said David Hewitt, the county’s senior administrator of housing stability, told MPR News.

Officials are struggling to keep people safe in the camps, which are a “very serious health and safety risk, most particularly to the people that stay within them,” he added. 

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He was especially concerned about families. “We need to get those families into family shelters as soon as we can. Today, if possible,” he said, noting that there is space available now for families.

The coronavirus has also had a negative impact on providing shelter to people. Before the pandemic, more than 400 people would be able to find space in a shelter on a typical night, Hewitt said. Now it’s 160.

Hewitt cites the need for a “person to person” solution despite everything his agency is doing, like deploying health care for people experiencing homelessness and increasing funding for community partner agencies. 

“Encampments are not an acceptable solution to homelessness,” he said. “For that matter, shelter is not an acceptable solution to homelessness. The only acceptable solution is housing, and that's what we need to be working towards.”

The park board said on Friday that it will consider a new resolution next week to reduce the size of the Powderhorn Park encampments. The new resolution would limit camping to 25 tents in each of Minneapolis's 20 parks. Currently, people without permanent homes are living in a total of 38 parks. The largest encampments by far are in Powderhorn Park.