Updated: 9:01 p.m.
A federal class action lawsuit filed Monday alleges that city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials violated the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness when they conducted sweeps that displaced them and put their health at risk.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court District of Minnesota on behalf of seven individuals and others like them who were evicted from their homes in city parks over the past few months. The lawsuit names Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson, Mayor Jacob Frey, Superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Al Bangoura and Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto.
Plaintiffs are asking officials to put an end to evictions and compensate those who’ve been affected by the sweeps.
According to the complaint, one of the plaintiffs, Henrietta Brown, woke up around 4 a.m. one rainy September morning to police officers shaking her tent and shining a bright light in her face. They told her she had 30 minutes to get out.
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Brown said she never received an eviction notice and was not prepared to leave. She managed to grab a blanket and her purse, but didn’t have time to get the rest of her things, including identification and family photos. Brown couldn’t get a spot at a shelter because she didn’t have her ID.
“That is why we brought this lawsuit,” said Justin Perl, litigation director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, “to stop this despicable behavior and require the city and the county and the park board and its authorities to implement a plan to save these people from more harm and more chaos.”
Eventually, Brown got help from ZACAH, a nonprofit organization that’s been helping people experiencing homelessness pay for hotel rooms. But Brown doesn’t know where she will go once the money runs out.
ZACAH president Bilal Murad said the organization and volunteers have been doing the work of finding temporary and permanent housing and paying for child care, without the resources of the city and county.
Murad said with donations, the organization has paid almost $115,000 for 2,000 nights in hotels for 500 people.
“What is the justification for an organization of seven volunteers, all of whom have full time jobs, many of whom are physicians and health providers, doing the work the state clearly has a funding and capacity to do,” he said. “We can and should be paying every dollar toward rent for our unhoused neighbors. Not shelling out money to hotels.”
The city attorney’s office released a statement saying the lawsuit is “misguided” and asked that the ACLU-MN and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid to refocus efforts to finding solutions to homelessness.
“Their action today incorrectly and unjustly asserts that plaintiffs have a constitutional right to exercise personal property and privacy interests on public lands to the exclusion of others’ interests in the use of those same lands, particularly in the face of mounting evidence that real threats to safety and health of plaintiffs and other members of the community continue to grow and persist by the continuance of remaining encamped in public parks and spaces,” the city’s statement read, in part.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board also issued a statement, saying that parks do not provide “dignified shelter” and the board has worked with multiple partners to find safe shelter for those experiencing homelessness in park encampments.
“Camping in parks now is simply not human or safe. Three people have already died at homeless encampments in Minneapolis this year,” the board’s statement read. “The action by the plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit does absolutely nothing to ensure the safety of homeless people in the coming days when the first days of winter are upon us all.”
Hennepin County officials say they can't comment on pending litigation, but in a statement, they pointed out their ongoing efforts to help people experiencing homelessness.
County officials said they've spent $12 million to provide housing for those who are at risk of serious illness from COVID-19. They also propose an additional $22 million on six additional sites.
"One person sleeping outside is too many," the statement read. "We need to make full use of the options available right now, even as we bring more online."
There were an estimated 222 tents in city parks as of Oct. 15, according to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The city has been working to reduce the number of tents since mid-July. While city officials say there is no deadline to clear the parks, “temporary encampments in parks will not continue into cold weather,” according to an Oct. 7 update citing health risks and fire hazard. But city officials add that they’ll continue to work on finding places for people experiencing homelessness.