The unhoused continue to face winter storms and encampment evictions
On Feb. 7, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) evicted a tent encampment from a strip of land off Lake and Hiawatha. It was just one of the many sweeps of encampments conducted by both the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County this year.
The county estimated the number of unhoused people who lived on the strip of MnDOT-owned land at the Hiawatha encampment at 37. And while no arrests were made during the sweep, which lasted most of the day, it does not tell the whole story of the hundreds of unhoused people living in and around Minneapolis.
Joe [name changed], who was one of the original people to set up his tent at the Hiawatha location with his sister and cousin two-and-a-half months prior, said he believed the encampment was being evicted because of some vehicles being stolen in the neighborhood, but that the people who stole the vehicles did not live in the camp. He says the camp’s population tripled after the encampment in Cedar-Riverside was evicted in January. Joe said there had not been any overdoses or violence at the camp, even with the newcomers.
The original residents of the encampment were able to keep the area fairly clean, Joe said, but that garbage became unmanageable once the camp began to grow. Neither the City of Minneapolis nor the MnDOT placed a dumpster or portable restroom at the site.
Jennie Taylor, another of the camp’s original residents, said the lack of a portable restroom at the camp had been a major problem. Taylor, who has difficulty walking, said she had to go a block away to Target every time she needed to use a restroom, since the Raising Cane’s restaurant that neighbored the camp required a purchase of a full meal for restroom access, which she could not afford.
Both Joe and Taylor felt MnDOT’s 24-hour notice to vacate was insufficient. Joe said he only keeps the bare minimum possessions required to survive, as everything else is lost every time he has to move. Taylor said making the decision of what possessions to bring or leave behind was a very difficult choice.
“People lose so much stuff, it’s crazy,” Taylor said. “It’s hard to keep good shoes, warm shoes; it’s hard to keep warm coats and warm clothes. To have to lose it or leave it because you have to compromise. Do I lose my tent and my blankets, or my bag of clothes?”
Taylor also said the snow increased the burden of the logistics of moving, which was already a difficult task due to her mobility challenges. On Feb. 23, as a major winter storm approached, 555 of Hennepin County’s 620 shelter beds for single adults were utilized. Many unhoused people who were unwilling or unable to reach a shelter continued to live in their tents during the storm.
One formerly unhoused person, DeAnthony Barnes, known locally as ‘King,’ said losing possessions in sweeps never bothered him as much as seeing people lose necessities.
“It’s all tangible stuff that is temporary anyway,” Barnes said. “It’s watching the people go through it. People are losing their shelter, their clothing, their heat. This is how they live, how they survive. And I see the city come in here and gather up all their full propanes, pack up their heaters, and take them away. Where are they at?”
In a Feb. 8 press release, Mayor Frey promised to address homelessness in Minneapolis by investing in low-income public housing. Frey also wanted to expand and renovate homeless shelters. The press release made no mention of a moratorium on evictions, a demand that activists have been strongly pushing for.
Evictions primarily conducted by the City have workers advertise a storage service run by the Downtown Improvement District. The eviction notice given by the MnDOT for the Feb. 7 eviction stated that all remaining possessions would be “considered abandoned and disposed of.”
Barnes, who now lives in the Avivo Village shelter in the North Loop neighborhood, still spends time in encampments to help out the people he knew from the time he spent unhoused. He also films the evictions for a documentary that features his and other unhoused peoples’ stories in Minneapolis, called “home – less.”
Randy Flowers, a case worker with Hennepin County’s Streets to Housing program, said encampment sweeps can sometimes cause case workers to lose track of unhoused clients. He noted that his team still had not found some people with active housing referrals whom they had lost contact with and that housing partners give case workers a limited amount of time to find clients.
“When this happens, now we have to shift the dynamics of the outreach we do. We go into finding mode,” Flowers said. “We can’t do assessments because we’re spending our time looking for people.”
Flowers, who spent eight years homeless, started doing outreach work in 2019. He joined Streets to Housing last summer when he saw what he described as “a shift in gears” of resources towards helping the homeless by the state and county.
Flowers said he believes all homelessness in Hennepin County will be “by choice” within five years, a deadline that he believes the county will be able to provide housing for anyone who wants it.
“In three to five years I think that the state and the City of Minneapolis will be the model that others look at,” Flowers said. “I believe this state here and the county will be the [example for] ending homelessness.”
In the meantime, Joe said he and his relatives plan to move up Hiawatha and set up camp again somewhere nearby.
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