Camp Nenookaasi fire under investigation, Minneapolis fire officials say

A person searches for their belongings
A resident searches for their belongings among the burnt remains of Camp Nenookaasi 28th Street and 11th Avenue after a fire destroyed residents’ tents and belongings on Thursday.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Updated: 6: 27 p.m.

Camp Nenookaasi has moved to a new location in south Minneapolis, after a fire burned it to the ground Thursday. 

There were two minor injuries at the encampment of unsheltered people, but no serious injuries or deaths were reported. The two-alarm fire burned quickly through tents and yurts.

Organizer Christin Crabtree said the camp’s 50 residents were shaken up.  

“Yesterday was really scary for a lot of the residents,” Crabtree said, “A lot of them lost everything they have.” 

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The Minneapolis Fire Department responded just after noon to the site near Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Crews were able to put it out in about half an hour. The cause is still under investigation.

People fence up a lot
City employees re-fence the lot that Camp Nenookaasi had stood on at 28th Street and 11th Avenue after a fire destroyed residents’ tents and belongings on Thursday.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Neighboring houses were superficially damaged, but Minneapolis Fire Chief Bryan Tyner said crews prevented the fire from spreading, despite risks from propane canisters on the site.

Metro Transit provided a bus for residents to keep warm, and city officials said the Red Cross was also called.

The fire comes after a months-long series of evictions. At a press conference Thursday, Mayor Jacob Frey said fires are one of the reasons that the city breaks up large camps.

“When you combine open flame with all sorts of flammable materials, including propane, it makes for an extremely dangerous situation that can at times result in something like what we saw today,” Frey said.

Crabtree said the camp takes precautions against fires, like keeping fire extinguishers on hand and using contained stoves instead of open flames.

“People need to stay warm, especially in winter, to be able to stay alive,” Crabtree said. “If the city is concerned about fire risks, I mean, we certainly are too … we aren’t seeing solutions come forward that are tangible solutions for these people right now.”

City and other officials have said that there are open shelter beds and have encouraged residents to go to those instead. But many camp residents opt to stay together at Nenookaasi, which organizers said is intended to be a safe place for people with substance use disorders who don’t want to live in shelters.

The Minneapolis City Council is working on drafting new policies around homeless encampments. Crabtree said she’s hoping city government will treat the camps as a public health issue and provide safety measures instead of repeatedly uprooting people.

“We are doing this because we want solutions, because we want to see people safe. We are not doing this because we want to be outside all the time,” Crabtree said. “Every person in our camp wants housing, that’s what they want.”

Propane tanks
Several propane tanks stand among the burnt remains of Camp Nenookaasi 28th Street and 11th Avenue after a fire destroyed residents’ tents and belongings is Thursday.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Crabtree joined with other advocates for unhoused people and Council Members Jason Chavez and Aisha Chughtai, who are backing an ordinance modeled on a policy in Denver that would allow nonprofits to operate “safe outdoor spaces.”

“This isn’t legalizing encampments on sidewalks, despite what people may say in the media,” Chavez said. “This is a data-driven approach. Some cities have adopted tent structures, tiny home models, microunits.”

Chavez said the regulated sites would provide social services to residents with the aim of getting them into permanent housing.

At his own news conference later Friday, Mayor Jacob Frey said he’s open to having a “reputable organization” run such a facility but is skeptical that any outdoor space can be operated safely.

“Why not do all of those things, meet people where they’re at, provide cultural sensitivity, give people access to homes, and provide warmth inside?” Frey said. “I have not yet seen a way to promise people safety in Minnesota in negative temperatures outside.”

Chavez is also drafting ordinances that would require the city to publicly report the cost of encampment closures and codify rules for clearing encampments.