City officials have set a date next week to clear a major homeless encampment in south Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood, but on Thursday a majority of City Council members asked Mayor Jacob Frey to delay action until mid-February.
The request by eight council members came two days after scores of supporters of the encampment streamed into City Hall during a public hearing on the city budget to oppose the planned clearing on Dec. 14. On the other hand, some neighboring organizations have pleaded with the city for months to dismantle the site.
The encampment, known as Camp Nenookaasi, sits next door to the Phillips Community Center along 23rd Street near 13th Avenue South. According to organizers, it housed some 180 people as of this week. It was established by Native American women in September after the city cleared out another encampment along Hiawatha Avenue known as the Wall of Forgotten Natives.
City officials say public safety and public health concerns prompted the decision to close the encampment.
Organizers, as well as a number of council members, say the camp is different — more organized and strictly run than tent cities that spontaneously crop up in Minneapolis and cities across the nation.
"This is more controlled," Council Member Jamal Osman, whose Ward 6 encompasses the encampment, said at a news conference Thursday. "We haven't had a lot of incidents. ... There will be more safety concerns if these 180 people go to the surrounding streets."
That's not the picture painted by some indigenous groups in the area.
"Not only are crimes being committed regularly, but they are also being hidden from police with threats of and physical acts of violence, to those who would normally report," Ryan Salmon, interim chair of Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, wrote this month in a letter demanding the encampment be "closed immediately."
Salmon's group includes more than 30 native organizations, including the Indian Health Board.
Neighbors have complained of crime in the area. The number of 911 calls, reports of violence and other police responses to the encampment weren't immediately available Thursday.
Osman held the news conference with seven other council members who sent a letter to Frey with three requests:
- Delay the planned eviction of those in the camp until Feb. 16
- In the meantime, "pursue all efforts to address public health needs at Camp Nenookaasi and the surrounding community."
- Collaborate on short-, medium- and long-term solutions for homelessness.
The letter was signed by Osman and Council Members Elliott Payne, Robin Wonsley, Jeremiah Ellison, Jason Chavez, Aisha Chughtai, Emily Koski and Aurin Chowdhury.
"Staff are constantly assessing and reassessing decisions — and the closure of this encampment is no different," Frey spokeswoman Katie Lauer said in response to Thursday's developments. "These decisions are informed by leading experts from multiple city departments, and prioritize the safety of the people both in the encampment and in the surrounding neighborhood.
"We are also listening to Native leaders who, in this case, have been demanding the City take this action for months."
The council doesn't generally have the authority to tell the mayor how to enforce city regulations.
Earlier Thursday, the council voted 13-0 on a resolution "declaring unsheltered homelessness a public health emergency." The move doesn't appear to have any immediate practical effects, but several council members said it signaled a desire to change the city's general policy toward homelessness.
Instead of treating it as a regulatory violation to be enforced, they said, the threats to public health — including sanitation, drug use and violence — should be the primary concerns of public response.
Council members asking for the delay emphasized they don't want the camp to stay open indefinitely and they don't support perpetual homeless encampments.
"The goal is to house them," Osman said of the camp's occupants.
The Indigenous Peoples Task Force is working with the city to redevelop the property for a roughly $5 million community center. Plans call for a deal to close in February; construction would begin soon after.