Shootings. Knife attacks. Harassment, assault and thefts. Open-air drug using and dealing. Noise at all hours of the night. Trash on the grass and streets. Reports of sexual assault and exploitation of girls and women.
Those are some of the problems nearby residents and others have experienced since the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board allowed the homeless to camp in city parks. That was a colossal error. The Park Board-managed public outdoor spaces are not campgrounds and are not designed to accommodate even temporary housing.
Allowing the camps to grow and attract so much illegal activity has endangered not only neighbors and park users, but also the homeless campers themselves. Some of them became victims of criminals, even after they had moved to the camps believing they would be safer outside than in shelters.
In an e-mail sent last weekend to Park Board officials and others, Minneapolis City Council member Lisa Goodman said she has for weeks tried to alert park and city officials to the problems in Kenwood and Loring parks. She told an editorial writer that she had received more than 20 e-mails per day confirming that “drug dealing, using, serious public health issues are raging” in Loring Park, which is in her ward. She added that by allowing it to continue, the city was doing a “disservice to those camping and to all of the thousands of neighbors who don’t have their own green space and rely on this park for their only recreation during this time of COVID.”
Finally, after months of complaints, the Park Board belatedly served eviction notices and is beginning to clear the encampments. Powderhorn, which once had over 500 tents, was down to about 35 last month. And this week notices were issued to campers at Kenwood, Elliot and Peavey parks, each of which had about a dozen tents, according to the board.
Those three encampments had “significant crime and safety incidents” and were deemed “dangerous” by park officials. Park police, with cooperation from the Minneapolis Police Department and the Hennepin County sheriff, cleared two on Wednesday, and some tents in Loring Park were taken down early Thursday. But authorities left the Peavey Park camp intact after advocates for the homeless gathered to support the campers.
Kenwood and Peavey parks are located near schools, making them unauthorized under a resolution passed by the Park Board last month prohibiting encampments in school safe zones. At least one of the schools, Hope Academy, which is next to Peavey Park, starts in-person classes in September.
Although the Park Board needs to ensure the parks are safe, no one should view homelessness as anything less than a crisis. A combination of factors including COVID-19, unemployment, a shortage of mental health care and a lack of deeply affordable housing has contributed to the problem.
Many of the homeless who seek shelter in parks or elsewhere are not engaging in criminal activity, as a commentary writer explained last month on these pages. Without question, more must be done to provide needed services and appropriate housing.
To that end, it’s welcome news that various local and state agencies will open three new shelter sites in the coming months. Those facilities will add 110 beds for those experiencing homelessness.
In the meantime, the solution to homelessness is not turning parks into tent villages.