Homeless advocates, Mpls Park Police clash over encampments

Chris Juhn/MSR News Minneapolis Rep. Aisha Gomez (District 62B) talks to police who carried out forced removals at Powderhorn Park

Park Board scrambles to find solutions

In South Minneapolis, the numbers of people living in parks increased as a result of evictions from the Midtown Sheraton Hotel located near Lake Street. Between 200-300 people experiencing homelessness had been staying there, many of whom relocated to Powderhorn Park. As a result, the housing crisis has been partially shifted onto the shoulders of the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board (MPRB).

The housing crisis in Minneapolis is certainly not new. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has discouraged people from utilizing homeless shelters, and some supportive housing was damaged in the fires and riots in the wake of the George Floyd anti-police violence protests. Some of those dispossessed by these events have turned to camping out in Minneapolis parks.

Early Friday morning, August 14, a crowd of people gathered at Powderhorn Park to protest the Park Police clearing of the site, which has become the epicenter of the homeless encampments that have skyrocketed over the last five months. Bulldozers swiftly cleared abandoned tents and garbage while the people who were living there rushed to pack their possessions into wheelbarrows and carts, or into busses and vans supplied by volunteers or MPRB officials there to help.

Park Police stood stoically behind the police tape line while protesters screamed insults at them, tore down the tape, and repeatedly pushed back the line. After the site was cleared and the Park Police sought to make their way back to their vehicles, an angry crowd followed them to their cars and began pounding on vehicle hoods as they tried to drive away. Wires were torn from the cars and several body cameras snatched from officers.

The crowd was forced to retreat as police responded by macing them. Several fell to their knees and tried to flush out their eyes with water or milk while others cried for medics and inhalers.

Chris Juhn/MSR New

Willow, who prefers to be identified as gender neutral, sat on the ground with streaming tears trying to flush the mace out in a state of shock. Willow lives near the park and, hearing it was being cleared, joined in the protest.

 “The [police] car started to drive off. We were kind of pushing them along telling them it was time to go. There was a little bit of jostling,” Willow said. “I was next to the car where a police officer pulled out a mace gun and maced the whole crowd.

“I’m feeling really distraught in this moment,” Willow continued, “and really my heart goes out to the homeless neighbors who are sent back now to find another place to be with no support. This isn’t a solution. It’s just messing up their lives even more and making it harder for them to find stability.”

As of August 13, an estimated 434 tents were scattered across different encampments in 44 local parks. This number has shrunk from the estimated 560 tents at Powderhorn alone on July 9.

“Park staff have been spending significant time and resources to address the influx of hundreds of unhoused people who have been living in temporary park encampments since this spring,” said MPRB Superintendent Al Bangoura in a statement after the clearing of Powderhorn. “We need safe parks for everyone, and having encampments in parks creates unsafe conditions for many of those living in the parks, those visiting the parks, and those living near the parks.”

Some community members and activists believe people experiencing homelessness should be allowed to stay, leaving City and County officials scrambling for solutions with the Parks & Recreation Board and Park Police.

MPRB Commissioner and Vice President Latrisha Vetaw was on site Friday helping people transition to other locations. “Initially I was like, whoa, wait a minute, this isn’t my job. But then I said, wait, where are these people going to go?” Vetaw said.

On July 15, MPRB instituted a permit ordinance designated to help maintain the safety and organization of people living in the parks. The ordinance states that over time, no more than 20 parks will be designated sites, and each may have no more than 25 tents.

“A lot of the neighbors were really welcoming at first, but again [they] had no experience with this population or with homelessness, so they didn’t know that there were people preying on these communities,” Vetaw said. “We see drugs, a lot of mental illness, a lot of sex trafficking and prostitution happening in these spaces, so I don’t think neighbors were prepared for what was to come.”

A number of stabbings, sexual assaults, and gunshots have been reported across multiple park sites since the numbers of people staying there began to swell. “The park board did what we could on our end by allocating 20 parks as sanctuary spaces. Now we need community members who say they want to help out to step up,” Vetaw added.

Chris Juhn/MSR News Homeless advocates clear their eyes of mace after having been sprayed by law enforcement

Anyone can apply for a permit to designate a park as a sanctuary space; however, the park cannot be too close to a school zone. Four such permits have been issued for Boom Island Park, Lake Harriet, Marshall Terrance Park and The Mall. There are 16 other parks that have been designated as capable of accommodating encampments but have yet to receive applications.

“If approved, the MPRB will provide restrooms or portable toilets, hand washing stations (as vendor supplies allow), and trash/recycling containers to a permitted encampment within 48 hours of issuing a permit,” the resolution reads.

Despite these allowances, groups such as the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement feel that these actions are not enough. Activists have been following their account on Twitter and Facebook to organize marches and protests and to find out where encampment sweeps will be held so they can block them.

The group posted the following on their Facebook page after the Powderhorn Park clearing:

“With no eviction notice, cops and bulldozers are destroying the West Powderhorn Sanctuary, arresting residents and blocking volunteers who are trying to help residents pack their belongings. These violent encampment sweeps are dehumanizing, violate the human right to live with dignity, threaten public health and break unhoused residents’ connections to vital resources, health care and their communities.

Governor Tim WalzMayor Jacob FreyMinneapolis Park and Recreation Board and Minneapolis City Council are all culpable in this abhorrent, state-sanctioned violence. NO EVICTIONS ON STOLEN LAND.”

According to the MPRB, eviction notices were served at Powderhorn two weeks before it was cleared. However, the date for the clearing was not specified. On the same day that Powderhorn Park was cleared, several other activists held their ground at Peavey Park, waiting for the Park Police to arrive and remove homeless camping there.

“So these people showing up to stop this, it’s not helping the people who are living in these parks,” said Vetaw. She added that with cold Minnesota weather around the corner, these camps are simply not practical.

“It’s a really tough situation to have unhoused folks living in parks. We have to do something as a city to deal with this, but the Park Board can’t be solely responsible. Living in the park is not a long-term solution. It’s not even a short-term solution. It’s not a solution at all. We have to do better for our unhoused population, but living in the park is just not it.”

“You can have supportive funds, or you can have funds that are basically the city trying to hold their power over everyone,” said one young woman protester who asked not to be named. “They shouldn’t be law and order right now. They should be compassionate and trying to keep people safe in their health and safety and in their mental health. They’re not trying.”