Minneapolis Park Board approves scaling back of large encampments

An encampment along 14th Avenue South in Minneapolis.
An encampment along 14th Avenue South in Minneapolis on June 17, 2020. The Park Board says 20 parks will be limited to 25 tents each.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Under pressure from residents of the Powderhorn Park neighborhood, the Minneapolis Park Board is scaling back the tent encampments that have been established there and around three dozen city parks.

The plan, approved unanimously Wednesday, limits encampments to 25 tents at each of a total of 20 city parks. It also requires camp organizers to get a permit, and grants Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board superintendent Al Bangoura the right to restrict or close encampments based on “exigent circumstances.”

It’s a major about-face for commissioners, who voted overwhelmingly just a month ago to allow all city parks to be used indefinitely and with no limits as “refuge space to people currently experiencing homelessness.”

Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw — who supported the initial measure — said the encampments are out of control.

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“We are outside of our wheelhouse. I have visited multiple sanctuary sites. I have been offered drugs. I have been offered money for sex. I have watched an overdose happen. I’ve seen things that I’m not even sure of what they were.”

Russ Adams said he recently saw what appeared to be a domestic dispute at the Powderhorn camp that spilled over into the street. A man tried to run over a woman with his car; she jumped onto the hood as he sped away.

No one was hurt, even after a second man pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot the driver. Adams, whose home faces the park’s east side, calls it, “the wild, wild east. There’s no consequence for any criminal behavior that’s going on. And that’s harmful to the encampment residents as much as it is to any of the housed residents.”

Park police say violence at Powderhorn is on the rise. Since Sunday they’ve responded to an armed kidnapping and robbery, a man out running who was struck by a rock, and the sexual assault of a person who’d overdosed.

Sheila Delaney volunteered with the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement at the park early on. But she said it has become too dangerous, and many other volunteers have left the Powderhorn east encampment.

Delaney said despite a rise in reports of violence, many in the group are reluctant to work with police. While she would prefer what she calls a community-led safety model, it’s not practical.

“Sanctuary Movement volunteers are people I like and respect, but there comes a time when you have to make a decision, and right now law enforcement is the tool that we have when we’re dealing with such a clear and present danger,” Delaney said.

The agency reported last night that the Powderhorn encampment appears to be shrinking, from an estimated 560 tents to around 300 because many residents are seeking safety in other parks, including Kenwood, Martin Luther King, and Minnehaha Falls. Previous counts also found people using tents to store belongings.

The new resolution requires encampment organizers to obtain permits or risk removal from park property. Assistant Superintendent Michael Schroeder says it also delineates where encampments can go.

“We are setting up what we’re calling buffer zones around park assets based on sight and walking distances that would ostensibly allow people to feel safe using those assets while there is an encampment in a park at some distance away from them.”

The agency is also deciding which parks will be allowed to have encampments. Schroeder says they’ve analyzed more than a dozen sites so far; most already have tents.

The resolution does not include a deadline for homeless people to vacate city parks. But by Sept. 15 the park board wants a report on progress toward moving camp residents into shelter and housing suitable for the winter.