This is part one of a five-part series from MPR News examining how the city of Minneapolis approached homeless encampments in 2022.
Posted: Feb. 1, 4:00 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 3, 4:51 p.m.
Matthew Ichikawa was in shock. He’d seen tent encampments evicted all over Minneapolis for years now — some he lived at, some he didn’t — but this clearing was different.
“I have not seen this type of effort for this size camp, ever. Like, I can't believe,” Ichikawa said shortly after police entered the encampment in the south Minneapolis neighborhood of East Phillips before 7 a.m.
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He and dozens of others had been staying in an empty lot just above the Midtown Greenway for months. Volunteers routinely delivered meals, basic necessities and supplies like naloxone, a medicine used to reverse opioid overdose.
Ichikawa sat on his bike in the middle of Bloomington Avenue that morning in September, watching as city dump trucks hauled out what was left after police forced residents to leave without time to gather their things.
The city has torn down encampments many times before, but something was new this time: Police taped off the encampment area for several blocks in all directions like a crime scene, preventing anyone from entering past the yellow tape. To Ichikawa, the way the city was dealing with its encampments had changed.
“The police won't even talk to us,” he said. “We've asked them several questions, and they give us the cold shoulder.”
Unsheltered homelessness has been an increasingly visible issue in Minneapolis for years, becoming top of mind for many residents in 2018 with what became called the Wall of Forgotten Natives, when hundreds of people — mostly Indigenous — lived in tents along Franklin and Hiawatha Avenues. At the time, it was widely considered the largest homeless encampment in Minnesota history.
Since then, camps with anywhere from a handful to hundreds of residents have regularly popped up in Minneapolis, often sticking around for months, sometimes years, through winters and extreme heat, before getting dismantled by authorities.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey ran his 2017 campaign on a lofty promise of ending homelessness within five years, a deadline that passed last November.
While the city has increased its production of affordable housing during Frey’s tenure, his administration has been under much scrutiny for encampment sweeps. The city says it is enforcing a section of city code from 2005 that makes it illegal to camp outside.
The city has been taking a whack-a-mole approach — kicking people out of camps and throwing away what’s left behind, only for people to have to acquire basic necessities all over again and pitch a tent somewhere else, sometimes just blocks away.
Minneapolis didn’t have a documented policy or process on how it clears encampments until recently. After publication of this story, a city spokesperson said a document posted in mid-December on its website outlines how it clears encampments and which departments are involved. It outlines an eleven-step process leading to the clearing of a camp, with posting of a notice to vacate as the second step.
But the document does not establish hard rules. For example, it says the city will give at least 72 hours notice before a closure, but can give less notice for a list of reasons. If the closure is changed or delayed, the city will “strive” to give at least 48 hours notice of the new closure plan. The document also states that providing storage options for encampment residents is a “goal,” without specifics.
City employees and elected leaders often say encampments aren’t safe and pose public health concerns.
“If we as a city think it is appropriate for anybody to be living on the street, without a toilet, without water, without shelter — that is unacceptable for any city. We cannot normalize being unsheltered, and as a result, one person is too many,” said Saray Garnett-Hochuli, the city’s director of regulatory services, one of the departments involved in planning and carrying out evictions.
Another position acknowledges that yes, encampments are far from ideal, but in the meantime, people are homeless and living outside, so how can the city make that experience less treacherous and more tolerable?
In interviews with MPR News, two Minneapolis City Council members expressed frustration with Frey and the city’s reaction to encampments.
Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said using the poor living conditions of unsheltered residents as a reason to evict them “misses the point” and doesn’t address the core issue of homelessness.
“To say that living out in these cold conditions or with rat infestations … these are undignified, therefore you just can’t live that way,” Ellison said. “OK, well, I don’t have a lot of options. I’m going to live that way. I’m going to live some way. I’m not going to fade into oblivion, right?”
For people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, living in congregate camps can provide a stronger sense of safety and community. Neighbors and volunteers know where to bring supplies. The city’s four-person Homeless Response Team, which was created in 2021, regularly visits encampments to address neighbor concerns and attempt to connect people with shelter options, housing program referrals and other resources.
Ellison said people in city government have gotten frustrated with his stance, “almost as if I'm proposing that people should live outside,” he said.
“I'm not proposing that people should live outside. I'm saying that they do. I'm saying that they do and that we don't have the solutions for them not to, but that we could make living outside less miserable, less of a dangerous terrain than it currently is.”
Hennepin County oversees social services including homeless shelters in the county. When it comes to shelter beds for single adults, “there are times when the supply demand is certainly challenging, and it's challenging right now,” David Hewitt, director of housing stability at Hennepin County, told MPR News in October.
He said 50 to 70 shelter beds open each morning, and “there is a lot of demand for those beds coming in. It is extremely common for all of those beds to be reserved” by the afternoon, although some inevitably open up due to no shows. Still, some might give up trying to secure a shelter bed, and for others, shelters aren't realistic options.
Either way, “we are connecting people directly to housing” but “housing takes time,” Hewitt said.
These facts nearly guarantee that some people who are homeless will find shelter outside. But in Minneapolis, that’s illegal.
In an interview with MPR News in November, Mayor Jacob Frey reiterated his stance that encampments shouldn’t exist.
“I don’t think that people should be staying outside in a state like Minnesota that, needless to say, is cold. The goal should be to get people inside,” Frey said.
COVID-19 exacerbated homelessness across the country. Minneapolis isn’t among the cities with the largest or fastest growing homeless populations, but at least 487 people in Hennepin County were homeless and living outside in January 2022.
So, what progress did the city make in ending unsheltered homelessness in 2022, and what’s been standing in the way?
This series from MPR News seeks to answer that. Read on below.
MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.
Correction (Feb. 2, 2023): An earlier version of this story did not include the most up-to-date information on the existence of a city document. The story has been updated to reflect the content of that document. It also has been updated to add information from Hennepin County.