Is providing a portable toilet an endorsement of a homeless encampment?

Crews of state and county workers clear a large homeless encampment
Crews of state and county workers clear a large homeless encampment in Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis on Jan. 18.
Kerem Yucel | MPR News

This is part four of a five-part series from MPR News examining how the city of Minneapolis approached homeless encampments in 2022.

Read more: Part one | Part two | Part three | Part five

Published: Feb. 1, 4 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 3, 4:40 p.m.

In October, Minneapolis City Council Member Jamal Osman’s office requested that a growing encampment in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood be equipped with portable toilets. Residents of the ward were calling with concerns. 

Osman’s ward, just south of downtown, has been home to many encampments over the years. Up until that point, portable toilets had been placed at every one of them, according to Osman’s senior policy aide Sean Broom, who made the initial call.

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“When they become more than just a couple tents, we provide a certain level of dignity and resources to them,” Broom said.

Broom thought it was a simple ask. He reached out to the city’s Homeless Response Team, which said the encampment was on state transportation department land, implying the city wouldn’t get involved. Broom pushed back, so the city agreed to ask the state for help. 

The state transportation department declined to step in. Nearly a month had passed since Broom’s request. Meanwhile, people living at the encampment were using buckets as a replacement. Broom took to Twitter to plead that the state’s top elected officials do something.

“We’re not getting any meaningful contact from anybody,” Broom recalls. “It goes back and forth like this for a few weeks, and then Aisha Gomez gets involved.” 

DFL state Rep. Aisha Gomez put pressure on the state. Finally, they agreed to help. The city used its vendor to install the toilets, and the state footed the bill. 

By mid-December — nearly two months after Broom’s first email — the toilets were placed at the encampment. 

“The entire time that this is happening, human beings have their most basic dignity denied to them, because of the worst in government finger pointing and blame avoidance,” said Broom.

A biff porta potty near a tent encampment
A tent encampment near Currie Park in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis is seen after a winter storm on Dec. 22, 2022.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Minneapolis spokesperson Sarah McKenzie confirmed to MPR News this month that the city has fulfilled requests for portable toilets at encampments on city property in the past but no longer does. She did not say when the change formally happened or why, but the city said they last provided portable toilets to an encampment in June 2022.

Broom said that before the change in government structure giving Mayor Jacob Frey executive authority, he could go directly to city staff with encampment issues or requests for things like portable toilets. Now, Broom said, anything has to run through the mayor’s office first.

Under the voter-approved “strong mayor” amendment that went into effect in 2022, the mayor is now the city’s chief executive officer and has more power than the City Council. All city departments now report to the mayor, and the council mostly focuses on making policy. 

“The mayor's office has basically unquestioned operational oversight of the city of Minneapolis,” Broom said. “It felt like staff was significantly more responsive to us as the Council, and that fundamentally we had an ability to impact the outcome … it's now just screaming at a brick wall.”

Encampment finally gets portable toilets, then gets torn down

Weeks after getting portable toilets, there was a fatal shooting at the Cedar-Riverside encampment. 

Osman called for officials to close the encampment. 

“The governor, MnDOT and everyone else involved have avoided responsibility, passed off blame and used accounting as excuses to ignore a homeless encampment in the middle of Cedar-Riverside,” Osman said in his statement. 

Days later, the state evicted the Cedar-Riverside camp, giving residents 24 hours to remove their belongings and leave. A large crew of state troopers held lines while state workers deconstructed tents and used heavy machinery to move everything into dumpsters.

“Anywhere you go, there’s gonna be problems and violence. Are they gonna keep moving us around every time something happens?” said Eric, a resident of the camp who declined to share his last name. “You got people who ain’t got nothing to do with none of that. They jeopardizing them and making them leave, like me.”

Eric, like most others at the camp, didn’t know where he would go next.

Two people sit on a bed inside of a tent home
Samira (left) and Eric take a break from the cold inside of Eric's tent on Dec. 22, 2022. They're residents of a tent encampment in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that's grown to more than 80 tents in the past three months.
Grace Birnstengel | MPR News

“The city has a disproportionate way in which it acts inhumanely on the issue of unsheltered homelessness,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Aisha Chughtai. “We choose to not put a hand-washing station or a porta-potty next to an 100-person encampment because the administration believes that putting one hand-washing station, one porta-potty next to an encampment of 100 people is going to attract every homeless person in the entire state to suddenly come and pitch a tent in Minneapolis.”

When asked whether he was worried allowing encampments could increase the number of unsheltered people who camp in the city, Frey said “I don't know that I've got the data to back that up” but that “there are reasons to not have large-scale homeless encampments,” namely public health and safety. 

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison feels the city is operating from a place of fear that giving encampments safer conditions is condoning them, opening up legal liability for anything that might happen there.

“Whereas if you just say it's zero tolerance, then it kind of feels like, ‘Well, whatever happens there isn't our fault. And as long as we keep pushing people around, it will never be our fault.’”

Tension over whether and when city notifies a camp it will be torn down

Another point of tension has been that the city says it sends outreach workers to visit camps several times before clearing them and that it notifies residents of an impending closure. Often, people who’ve been kicked out of encampments say they’ve never spoken with or saw government workers and did not receive advance notice to leave before police arrived. 

To see for himself, council member Ellison spent time at encampments in Near North and the North Loop leading up to planned evictions last summer.

Ellison said he doesn’t fault any individual staff who visit encampments. He thinks the staff aren’t getting the support or resources they need to do their jobs effectively. 

He saw government workers drop by encampments – some stayed minutes, some walked the length of the camp and left, some had brief conversations with people living at the encampments, some identified themselves but others didn’t.  

“If that’s how folks are interacting when they come in an encampment, I could see how a resident might think that no one ever came,” Ellison said.

Some encampment closures last year, according to encampment residents, came completely by surprise. 

“I was here every day, and I didn’t see a ‘please leave’ or ‘notice to vacate,’” Matthew Ichikawa said moments after the encampment where he’d been staying in the East Phillips neighborhood was evicted in September. “If there was a notice to vacate, we wouldn’t take it down. We would be telling each other about it. … the way they came in was … they knew we weren’t aware of it.” 

Matthew Ichikawa outside a Minneapolis homeless encampment clearing
Matthew Ichikawa watches as police clear an encampment where he had been living above the Midtown Greenway in the south Minneapolis neighborhood of East Phillips on Sept. 30, 2022.
Grace Birnstengel | MPR News

Ichikawa said police approached him aggressively and denied his plea to gather up what was in his tent. He was able to grab a few small things before the rest got bulldozed and dumped, but said many others weren’t present during the eviction and lost everything, including a woman who was recently hospitalized and on antibiotics for a blood disease.

“She’s homeless, and she doesn’t have any idea how to get her antibiotics right now, you know?”

The city said in October all encampments have been given notice several days to weeks in advance of closures with a no trespassing sign and a notice to vacate, posted in multiple places. 

“By the time closure is occurring, folks are very well aware of what is expected, and folks have had opportunity to remove their things, as well as their bodies, from that space.” Saray Garnett-Hochuli said. Garnett-Hochuli is city’s director of regulatory services, one of the departments involved in planning and carrying out evictions. 

Chughtai said a standard practice nationally is to give detailed warning of eviction with a day and time. 

“We don't do that. We don't even give notice of like, generally speaking, in this week we'll come. We just put up a notice and say hope that scares you off. If it doesn't, we're going to come one of the days after we posted this sign, and we're going to slash your tent at six o'clock in the morning. And if you’re not gone, we're gonna yell at you. We're gonna say you have five minutes to leave. And if you don't go, we're gonna arrest you. And then that's what we do. And it works.”

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