In the working-class Phillips community of south Minneapolis, residents are frustrated by a seemingly endless cycle of homeless encampments popping up, being removed, and resurfacing blocks away — and skeptical of any promise of change.

In the West Phillips neighborhood, Melissae Bletsian watched as an encampment sprung up behind her home earlier this year, next to a sober house and treatment center. People would shoot up drugs and pass out in the alley, where first responders would try to revive them while children looked on from a playground. Gardens became outhouses. Gun violence traumatized neighbors. The camp was cleared only after an organized, relentless barrage of complaints from neighbors.

Bletsian and many of her neighbors have grown cynical, suspecting that had the encampments encroached on more affluent parts of town, they would have been handled far sooner. Instead, they've multiplied and moved, burned and been rebuilt, in the same few Minneapolis neighborhoods.

"Let's not just pit one group of people against another group of people and then create these little neighborhood wars that are only happening in vulnerable neighborhoods," Bletsian said.

Mayor Jacob Frey, who came into office in 2018 promising to end homelessness in five years, noted that the city has invested $363 million in affordable housing programs since 2018 and seen the average number of affordable housing units built each year double from the six-year period before Frey took office. But he acknowledged that addressing housing unaffordability and the fentanyl epidemic, and the encampments those issues have prompted, remains a work in progress.

"There's work that has been productive and strategies that have been less so," acknowledged Frey. "We are making progress. It's not quick enough. We need a much more robust method of providing treatment for people in addiction. … It remains a revolving treadmill, where unless we're providing treatment and a way out, there's stagnation. And so this is an area where collectively, yes, we need to be doing a better job."

It's proven one of the most vexing issues of Frey's time in office, with data showing encampments have grown exponentially in recent years.

Records obtained via a data request show that the city closed one encampment on its property in 2020. The following year, there were six. During those years, at the height of the pandemic, encampment sweeps were restricted by an order from Gov. Tim Walz.

Once the restrictions were removed, the number of encampment closures grew. In 2022 there were 26, and last year there were 58. Map it out and it's clear the closures have prompted most encampments to move within a few blocks of north and south-central Minneapolis, and around the transit center at I-35W and Lake Street.

In the first months of 2024, the high-profile Camp Nenookaasi has moved repeatedly, prompted by city closures and, in one case, a large fire.

Nenookaasi organizer Christin Crabtree thinks the concentration of encampment response efforts under the city's Regulatory Services Department is evidence camp residents are treated as a code violation to be cleaned up, rather than people with medical needs deserving a public health approach.

"Most of the people that I know who live at these camps have family in the community or grew up in these neighborhoods, or they're connected with case management at services that are going to get them into housing," Crabtree said. "At the same time, it's not lost on me that the places that people are setting up camps are already under-resourced communities … and I think we are mistaken when we separate people into housed and unhoused."

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star TribuneAn encampment edges up against Park Square Condominiums at Blaisdell Avenue and Lake Street in south Minneapolis.

Merging lanes

Encampments tend to cluster in higher-poverty neighborhoods where there are more city-owned vacant, tax-forfeited and failed investment lots, said Erik Hansen, the city's director of community planning and economic development. While many of those lots are in the pipeline for redevelopment into multifamily housing, they've been stalled by years of litigation over Minneapolis' 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Passage of new legislation to save 2040 may soon revive them.

The city has traditionally focused on producing affordable housing, leaving Hennepin County to provide direct services to people experiencing homelessness. The separate lanes have created dilemmas: Outreach workers who contract with the county often criticize the city's encampment closures for destabilizing clients as they wait for housing placements, but the city is beholden to neighborhoods tired of blight and trauma.

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In a bid to shorten the county's methodical but tedious "coordinated entry" system of housing those with the most complicated needs first, the city employed a new company, Helix, to move people from Nenookaasi directly into apartments, regardless of where they ranked on the county's waiting list.

Still, the city and county have partnered on efforts including funding emergency shelters like Avivo Village. City officials cite Hennepin County's homelessness census as evidence of progress, because from 2019 to 2023, the number of people identified as living unsheltered went from 603 to 469. But the tally conducted by county workers under grueling conditions one day each winter is widely understood to be an undercount and not reflective of summer populations.

Looking ahead, city officials say they are changing their strategy to tackle encampments from a health perspective.

Regulatory Services Director Enrique Velázquez said that while his department used to rigidly deny encampments toilets in order to avoid "normalizing" them, it's relaxed that policy, recognizing that people without bathrooms will relieve themselves elsewhere.

And while the city's Health Department doesn't currently have a regular presence in encampments, Deputy Director Heidi Ritchie said that in the coming months it will deploy a mobile medical unit to provide wound care and dentistry to people in encampments.

Frey said he is pursuing the creation of a treatment facility "that provides compassionate care and a route out of addiction in a culturally sensitive way" in partnership with tribes. But the scope and potential locations have not been established.

Jeff Wheeler, Star TribuneNaomi Wilson, who lives in East Phillips, speaks at a demonstration on the Hennepin County Government Center Plaza in March. "We don't have enough housing for the people who need it," she said. "It doesn't have to be this way."

Shared understanding

Neighbors sometimes blame encampment residents for refusing services and accuse volunteers who outfit them with survival gear of being enablers.

Naomi Wilson, a volunteer with the Sanctuary Supply Depot, said she continues to serve encampments because in 2023, there were 4,000 instances of people who tried to reserve a bed in one of Hennepin County's emergency shelters and were turned away — most for lack of space, some because they'd been banned. The year before that, 7,000 were turned away.

"Where are they supposed to go?" Wilson asked. "A lot of unhoused residents don't feel safe in shelters as well, for a variety of reasons, and so until they're able to get placed in housing, we get them tents and tarps and heaters."

At the same time, encampment supporters sometimes dismiss the suffering of their neighbors, who argue that they too contend with generational trauma, have loved ones in recovery and value the humanity of those living on the streets.

"I think everyone actually agrees about that, that these are people, and we should just move beyond arguing that point," said Happy Reynolds, who says she's staying in south Minneapolis despite maddening problems with drug dealing and sex trafficking because it has been her family's home for more than a century.

"We're attacking [homelessness] in a way that isn't really treating the disease. We're just sort of allowing it to happen, and at least my experience is the city 100 percent allows our neighborhood to just kind of be dumped on."

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star TribuneIn March, the city dumped concrete chunks across the lot where Camp Nenookaasi sat, near 28th Street and 11th Avenue, so that an encampment couldn't spring up again there.