A divided Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on Wednesday rejected a plan that could have restricted homeless encampments in parks across the city, including a sprawling community at Powderhorn Park that leaders say has become the largest in Minnesota history.
The Park Board has accommodated hundreds of homeless residents who migrated across Minneapolis in the midst of the uprising following the police killing of George Floyd. Last month, commissioners voted to allow homeless residents to stay overnight at city parks.
Yet it has struggled to contain the Powderhorn site, where two separate encampments at the northern end of the park have now grown to as many as 600 people in 400 tents, according to the board. It’s now larger than the Wall of Forgotten Natives, a tent encampment disbanded in 2018, and park leaders say conditions are becoming increasingly dangerous.
On Wednesday, the Park Board was scheduled to vote on a resolution that would limit the size of the encampments to 10 tents at 10 park locations, and which would have ended the current order allowing encampments of all sizes Sept. 1.
Commissioner Londel French, who has become a regular presence volunteering at Powderhorn Park, moved to pull the resolution from the meeting agenda. Five commissioners voted in favor; four voted against.
“I think a real, true resolution would be thought out and would take considerations of the folks who actually don’t have a place to go,” French said. “Maybe they can have some better ideas than we do.”
Commissioner Brad Bourn also voted to remove the resolution, saying it went against the Park Board’s earlier commitment to make parks a refuge for the homeless. “I’m just incredibly confused by it because it seems to take a 180-degree position from what the board passed at its last meeting,” he told commissioners.
Commissioners French, Bourn, AK Hassan, Chris Meyer and Kale Severson voted to remove the resolution from the agenda. Commissioners Meg Forney, Steffanie Musich, LaTrisha Vetaw and Park Board President Jono Cowgill voted against the motion.
Several people who attended the meeting, some of whom are living at Powderhorn, applauded and cheered the vote, with some later saying the resolution was ill-formed and proposed without another plan in place.
Earlier this week, Cowgill said he had brought forth the resolution to set some deadlines he hoped would push other government agencies, particularly the state, to move quickly to offer resources for homeless residents, including mental health support and other camping areas.
“I have yet to see the tangible commitments that can help us move to a next step for a lot of people on the ground,” Cowgill said Tuesday. “While it seems like winter is a far ways off, it really isn’t. Staring down the idea of having 200, 300 tents in Powderhorn in August is really concerning to me for the folks that are there.”
Campers, volunteers and neighbors at Powderhorn Park have made the same request in recent days, calling on the state to provide emergency funding for the homeless population and swiftly connect campers with permanent housing. Hennepin County, the Park Board and the city of Minneapolis are asking the state to fund nonprofits to do more outreach, set up emergency shelters at the State Fairgrounds and buy more hotel rooms across the state.
Small encampments have shown up in about 35 park locations, including one in front of Park Board Superintendent Al Bangoura’s home at Lyndale Farmstead Park.
The board is spending nearly $16,000 a week renting materials such as portable restrooms and providing “additional staff services” at Powderhorn, according to its website.
The Powderhorn encampments, Cowgill said, have become untenable and brought in “dangerous, problematic and predatory behaviors.” Former residents said they have witnessed fights breaking out each day. Last week, a teen was sexually assaulted at a campsite.
On Wednesday night a teenager was shot several times near a tent encampment at Peavey Park in south Minneapolis, according to several reports. He was in critical condition but expected to survive.
Scott Alan Harper, 49, was staying at Powderhorn and felt the camp becoming increasingly volatile. When he learned a teen had been sexually assaulted, he packed his belongings and left with a group of other residents, forming the encampment outside Bangoura’s home.
He has been in Minnesota for less than a month, traveling across the country using military and retirement benefits. At the encampment, he said Minneapolis was “such a beautiful place,” and that he was going to help pick weeds at a neighboring house.
Current Powderhorn residents painted a calmer picture Wednesday.
Nadine Little, who was at the former Sheraton hotel shelter before arriving at the park, said the west side of the park is quieter than the larger east camp.
She did not support the Park Board’s plan to shrink the encampments and said the people in the camp need more volunteers, security and housing options.
“I hope that we are not all here in the park, and be housed, and not have to worry about being out here in the streets,” Little said.