Minneapolis city officials seek effective, humane way to address unsheltered in camps

One council member says the city is playing 'whack-a-mole' as new camps emerge after others are torn down

Crews work to remove an encampment.
Minneapolis city crews clear an encampment along Bloomington Ave. on Thursday.
Nina Moini | MPR News

A few residents of a Minneapolis encampment were still deciding where to go as city workers in reflective vests finished cleaning up trash.

The city of Minneapolis reported outreach workers had been working since August to locate and work with at least 15 individuals thought to be living at the encampment along Bloomington Avenue in south Minneapolis.

The city said three of those individuals accepted resources. It is unclear where the other 12 went.

Michael Goze warmed up a small white bus to transfer people to a nearby nonprofit.

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Goze has been CEO of the American Indian Community Development Corporation in Minneapolis since 1992. Goze, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation, helps find housing and other health resources for unsheltered people, often providing on-site support during clearings.

“A number of the people that are in this encampment here already have housing,” Goze said. “They choose not to go there because this option is available.” The few remaining people did not want to talk to MPR News about their plans.

Crews work to remove an encampment.
Michael Goze (Ho-Chunk), CEO of the American Indian Community Development Corporation in Minneapolis, provides resources and transportation at an encampment clearing Thursday.
Nina Moini | MPR News

Newly elected Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah said the way the city has been addressing encampments for the past five years has amounted to a game of encampment “whack-a-mole.”

Wonsley Worlobah represents Ward 2, which covers the eastern part of Minneapolis. Wonsley Worlobah said at least four other council members, mostly new ones, want to move forward with creating a “standardized, humane, effective policy for navigating encampments that addresses the short-term and long-term needs of the residents.”

Wonsley Worlobah added that crafting the policy would include public hearings with all community members, including people living in encampments.

“If we don’t have a very clear process in place — a policy that names how our city is going to ensure that everyone has their supports that are needed, especially in our encampments — then we need to pause on the evictions for us to create the space to figure that out,” Wonsley Worlobah said.

The city said the Bloomington Avenue encampment was partially on private property, and the owner asked the city to clear the area as well.

Wonsley Worlobah said encampments are not a solution to housing people, but evictions are not working much of the time, either.

“I don’t think we all want to see human beings staying out in the elements in negative 20-degree weather.” 

a woman poses for a portrait outside
Robin Wonsley Worlobah won in a close race for Ward 2. She is the first Black Democratic Socialist on the Minneapolis City Council.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal, file

Goze said people he meets across encampments are often facing many challenges related to generational trauma, mental health, substance abuse and poverty. Goze said some would rather live on their own than with the restrictions that come with most shelters.

“You know, the ability to use drugs at their convenience — that seems to be the driving force,” Goze said.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported in recent years that Native Americans were seven times more likely to die of a drug overdose than white Minnesotans, and the race rate disparities increased from 2010 to 2019.

African Americans were almost two times more likely to die of a drug overdose than whites.

The COVID pandemic also presents challenges. Advocates say many people experiencing homelessness have chronic health conditions which put them at grave risk for contracting the disease. They say some people refuse to stay in crowded shelters where it is difficult to isolate from others.

Outreach workers are currently monitoring 12 encampments across Minneapolis. The city said a usual yearly count to estimate the unsheltered population did not happen last year because of the pandemic. 

Wonsley Worlobah says the City Council has support from the mayor to begin studying a city policy around encampments. 

While some people may choose to find or create another tent encampment, Goze said he will always remain hopeful for the individuals experiencing homelessness he encounters. 

“Being in recovery myself, I know that if it wasn’t for other folks intervening in my life, I would not have chosen to change either.”