The Best City For Public Parks, and 1,000 People With Nowhere To Sleep

This is not a story with a point, or a story about things that happened and how they made anyone feel, or really a story at all. It is just telling you a few details about how, precisely, the city of Minneapolis and state of Minnesota cemented criminalization as their only response to an ongoing housing crisis from May through August 2020, during a pandemic, because it is still going on, and whoever wants to know should be able to know. It is not exhaustive, because I didn’t include anything I didn’t witness or talk with someone about with my voice or hands. It is not anyone’s experience or a call to action. I am just telling you what I saw. I do feel all kinds of ways, but I’ll figure out what to do about that as I go.

Fact: Dignified housing for all is a contradiction to the police state.

On May 30, 2020, a hotel became: a site of occupation, an unapologetic demand to reject all rules governing space, a pantry, a kitchen, a community health clinic, a home, twenty homes, two hundred homes, an indictment on every sitting elected official and a swift rejection of the callous lie that they are the arbiters and keepers of justice, 1.3 miles from a humiliated police precinct. Others have written about the Sanctuary Hotel already and if you’ve read it or if you were there then you know, by June 10th, the Hotel in all its imperfection ceased to become anything more or less than what it was. The matter of the decline-to-comment, deactivated-key-cards-en-masse owner of the hotel, does matter, but I won’t get into it here.

So on June 10th, a Minnesotan without a house — their name is not your business, but they deserve to be called by theirs, so let’s settle with R. — pitched the first tent at Powderhorn Park, the day after the Minneapolis Police Department descended on the Hotel. R. and another 150–200 sheltered unhoused people were, once again, unsheltered unhoused people, once again, displaced with nowhere to go.

And then, Powderhorn became home to many homes, beginning with 40 to 50 tents and soon 10 times as many. Clearly people did not just “appear,” as the New York Times would describe a few weeks later, unless we’re talking about the literal tents, which no one should be, because a tent is a tent. The residents of the encampment had come from the Hotel, from Lake and Hiawatha, from under the bridges and the lightrail, and the city of Minneapolis has long known exactly who and where unsheltered people are, because they can find them when the handcuffs are out in less time than it takes you to read this. More importantly the tents were staked in violent conditions that have facilitated a decades-long housing crisis in a city where white supremacy never, ever yields. The New York Times should correct this error, but a lot of people should do a lot of things they don’t do.

Two days later, in the early hours of Friday, June 12th, the Minneapolis Park Police arrived at Powderhorn clutching eviction notices, entering homes and demanding residents leave the premises by 8 a.m. (The choice to serve eviction notices instead of, say, trespassing notices, is not a small detail, because it would be difficult to serve an eviction without acknowledging the presence of home, I’m sure you’d agree). By sunset, pressure from neighbors, community outrage and a digital campaign swiftly reversed the eviction. Governor Tim Walz’s staff, allegedly, began convening the Interagency Council on Homelessness to help acquire resources for residents at Powderhorn. (Many things happened quickly after that; resources from the Interagency Council markedly absent from that list.)

By June 16th, F12 People’s Kitchen was undefeatable and indefatigable. Over the course of the next month, F12 would go on to serve six meals a week for both sides of Powderhorn Park.

I don’t have an editor hounding me about word count here so let me insert my sidebars wherever I please, as soon as I can. Fact: F12 fed and nourished and sustained a movement. Fact: F12 mobilized meal service for over a hundred unhoused residents faster than the City of Minneapolis could figure out how to open access to a fire hydrant across the street (seventy-two hours, for reference) so people could have some goddamn water.

The next day, on June 17th, the Minneapolis Park Board passed what was ostensibly a historic resolution, permitting all parks to serve as refuge sites for unsheltered people. It would not last a month; of course no one knew this. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if we did.

By this point there were something like, 50 volunteers and community members and neighbors cycling in and out of Powderhorn Park every single day, in 4- or 8- or 12-hour shifts, counting silverware in the food tent, working as community safety patrol, wrapping wounds, managing the shower stall, lifting plastic from the grass, organizing outreach workers, or tossing a frisbee, or sitting cross-legged, carefully placing little flowers in the divet of a fallen leaf, a bouquet wrapped with a blade of grass. And there was a sign-up sheet, and volunteer orientation (“Shared Values: AUTONOMY AND RADICAL EMPATHY; HARM REDUCTION; MUTUAL AID; ABOLITION; ANTI-RACISM”), meetings in the parched afternoons, and an open mic at sundown, and a great deal of hope, even when the rain passed over and soaked boxes of honey nut cheerios all the way through.

For about two weeks somewhere in there, every outreach team in the Twin Cities flocked onsite. Most outreach workers are kind and exhausted; only some are cold and cynical; all have supervisors that believe the state can manage/sort-and-filter/export-to-csv it’s way out of homelessness, shuffling people between shelters and systems of enforced poverty.

One of the largest homeless outreach organizations in the region had a contract with the state to conduct a “census” of Powderhorn, apparently in an effort to decipher the scale of the response that was needed. The census cost a couple thousand if I remember correct. Some might argue that three hundred tents surrounding the lake could indicate something like “hey maybe the response is to get every single person into every vacant unit or hotel room within 20 miles.” Others might not argue, but just wonder if there was one (1) demonstrable benefit of using that money on a census vs. direct cash payments, getting people phones, paying some security deposits, hotel rooms, birth certificates, idk, any ideas,

At this point, Hennepin County had convened “Powderhorn Incident Response” meetings, including officials from the Office to End Homelessness, the Minneapolis Police Department, the Park Board, the Health Department, and the state. People living at or supporting Powderhorn were, you’ll be shocked, not invited. After some pressure, they caved, by which I mean, they made a new meeting for the sole purpose of keeping their The Adults Are Talking, Honey meeting private.

On June 24th, these “Powderhorn Coordination” meetings began. The purpose was, apparently, “to discuss updates from each agency and assign action steps.” These “updates” would turn out to be a remarkable demonstration of the Simone-Biles-level mental gymnastics it requires to avoid the words “permanent housing” in a conversation about several thousand people lacking permanent housing.

At this time, the following asks were made in writing, so no one could ever say they hadn’t heard them, to:

Rep. Aisha Gomez, City Council Member Alondra Cano; Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley; Mayor Jacob Frey; MPRB Commissioner Londel French; MN Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho; State Sen. Jeff Hayden; Don Ryan of Hennepin County’s Office to Prevent Homelessness; Lt. Grant Snyder of the Minneapolis Police Department; MPRB Staff member Jenna Tuma; and Minneapolis Health Department Deputy Commissioner Noya Woodrich:

  • No moving anyone without their consent, and only relocating if you are providing/resourcing a better option
  • Large tents so all the food and supplies don’t get wet and so folks can dry their stuff off
  • A shower for the east side of Powderhorn Park (the shower on West was provided by a Jewish disaster relief organization)
  • Electrical connection so volunteers do not have to run generators
  • Drinking water stations that balance COVID-19 safety with the need for potable drinking water
  • Willingness to fund a trusted and accepted partner to operationalize centralized Sanctuary coordination
  • Scaling up paying for and activating hotel rooms to house people
  • Funding the purchase of hotels to use as housing (specifically the former Sheraton, to be operated by a culturally relevant organization)
  • All park, city, country, and state property and funds to be prioritized for housing people experiencing homelessness

By late June, as residents of Powderhorn began seeking smaller spaces, sheltered and unsheltered neighbors began resourcing a “satellite” encampment at Lyndale Farmstead, and community members engaged with Powderhorn began directing more energy and resources toward Peavey Park, the Greenway and other encampments across Minneapolis.

Important context I missed earlier — the state had something like, 55 million dollars, from the CARES Act, to support unhoused people during the pandemic. 55 million is what you would have today if I gave you $2,000 a month starting before the birth of Christ. Sometimes we get desensitized to words like “millions” and lower our expectations. You know? So just keep that in mind.

On July 1st, MPRB introduced Resolution 2020–263, calling for all encampments to be reduced to 10 tents at 10 parks total, who wants to help me fit a Boeing 747 into a U-Haul. Following a day-long email campaign culminating in a rally at MPRB headquarters, the resolution was tabled until July 15th, hardly a favor, as building an environment of perpetual fear and ticking clocks and bulldozers rolling one foot at a time is a foolproof strategy to physically and psychologically exhaust anyone to the point of being unable to think beyond the next morning.

By July 2nd, Kingfield and Martin Luther King satellite parks were established. That day, Councilmember Cano’s office sent out an advisory for a July 6 “Powderhorn Partners” (if you’re losing track; same) meeting, composed of:

“four unhoused residents; four housed residents; the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association; representatives from each of the non-profits hired to service the camp such as Avivo, St. Stephen’s, and any others with active contracts and presence on site; MPRB; Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey; Cano and City Staff; Commissioner Angela Conley and County Staff; State Rep. Gomez; State Senator Hayden; Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan and State Staff.”

The event was put on “hold” as promptly as it was organized, and never rescheduled.

Come July 13th, Kenwood, Brackett, Minnehaha, Riverside and Annie Young Meadow were established as Sanctuary sites, and two weeks have slipped like smoke through an open palm, and that previously tabled resolution is a hissing flame. The revised resolution proposed 25 tents at 20 “permitted” parks, as if there is any such thing as a “permissible” encampment in a city saturated with vacant public housing units and public land, and empty lots and hotels collecting dust, and 55 million dollars..!!

That Monday, July 13th, MPRB President Jono Cowgill was urged against a “permitting” system that was destined to fail (the suggestion on its own inherently implicating the numerous failures preceding it); creating a dangerous hierarchy between permitted and non-permitted encampments; and writing into law justification for park evictions. Where’s the governor in all this, you have to wonder — was it not his signature on an execute order barring all evictions (including encampments) during the peacetime emergency?

The next day, as the board was allegedly marinating on the resolution or more likely drafting up contracts that would soon be necessary to bulldoze and trash neighborhoods, F12 began meal distribution at Brackett, Lyndale Farmstead, Kenwood and Martin Luther King, plus 150 meals to Powderhorn East and West. Meanwhile, volunteers opened up a supply depot at a Minneapolis church that would go on to distribute food, water, clothes and other essential items across 20-some parks, an ongoing operation, because some people in this city care whether their neighbors can live and eat and sleep at night.

An aside that I am not going to say much about the details of this mutual aid work because my goal here is to convey the extent to which the city brazenly failed to support houseless people during a pandemic, and by getting into the mutual aid work I risk glossing over the racist, misogynistic, white savior behavior that swallowed so much of it whole. Just putting it in the record in case anyone tries to argue the city did any of that work. They didn’t.

Back to July 14th — across the city, state and county officials informed volunteers and residents at Powderhorn of their plan to move residents out of the park and “to housing or shelter,” announcing they had secured transportation via the state to assist in these moves. The email chain was in its infancy before it became clear that the “transition” was not, in fact, from Powderhorn to housing, but rather Powderhorn to other parks. Always crisis and confusion and words that mean another word.

It’s admittedly hard for me to envision a world in which these officials were somehow unaware the satellite encampments would again come under the threat of eviction within 24 hours, by their own colleagues, but, you know, maybe you have a more generous imagination than I do. I doubt it. Whatever.

The next day, MPRB voted to reduce the size of encampments to 25 tents at 20 parks with permits, vowing a list of “designated” sites. Some protested at the park board, others began crowdfunding for hundreds of hygiene kits (again, $55 million) and organizing de-escalation training, and maybe you’ve picked up on a trend visible across Minneapolis of community digging their heels in at precisely the same moment government shamelessly dragged barricades out from the trenches.

By July 17th, Logan Park, Loring Park, Elliot Park, Marshall Terrace, Peavey and The Mall were established sites. MPRB updated their website to say Lake Harriet had space for 20 tents and Marshall Terrace for 19 — this is important — and deemed Brackett, Elliot, Kenwood, Lyndale Farmstead, Peavey and Powderhorn West “full,” whatever that meant, (actually what it meant was: one more tent and we’ll have grounds to evict and send residents to other parks, which will also become full, and then we’ll have grounds to evict, and send residents to other parks, which will …)

When should I add that, according to MPRB’s system for counting tents, tents holding food and supply counted the same as tents housing people? Does that work here?

On July 17th, Superintendent Al Bangoura issued an eviction notice — delivered under the authority of the police — to East Powderhorn, demanding everyone leave before the Board engaged law enforcement (that was a relief; for a moment I worried law enforcement was already engaged when he sent the eviction notice under the authority of law enforcement). No list of alternate parks was provided, despite the promise to do so two days prior.

A reminder that the only publicly shared information at this point, was that there were 20 and 19 openings at Harriet and Marshall Terrace, respectively. MPRB staff said not to worry, Logan Park had 14 openings, bringing the grand total to 53 “spots” for (my best guess) 250 people. MPRB also denied requests for bathrooms and handwashing stations at Lake Nokomis, arguing Nokomis was not a “designated site” (still no list) but of course Nokomis is established anyway because, where, precisely, are people supposed to go.

Around 1 p.m. on July 20th, MPRB, Park Police and MPD arrived at Powderhorn East. State officials followed, peeled themselves up from bus seats drenched in sweat, a field trip to hell, to chauffeur newly displaced residents to a handful of other parks. Dead, soulless eyes you get only when you’re doing something vile that you’ve done before and know you’ll do again. Twenty community members, including an Indigeous woman, arrested onsite for protecting land. State officials indirectly provided a short list of open and “potentially approvable,” but the list was still not public, and park staff did not respond to a request for one.

The next week dripped into the heat. A portion of the displaced residents of East Powderhorn pitched tents at established encampments across the city, others set up at Bryn Mawr.

On July 25th, a group of almost 200 marched to Frey’s apartment, demanding he show his face and discuss any of the dozen ideas community had brought forth, and I suspect he sat there, cheek muscles incarcerated in a charcoal mask.

A few miles away, Beltrami Park residents and neighbors pled with park staff, requesting port-a-potties and a handwashing station for a group of ten Native elders. Denied. “They can move to an encampment,” read an email two days later, “that is set up with services. Beltrami doesn’t have service set up. If they want it to be considered they should go the permit route.”

Beltrami is established anyway because where, precisely, are people supposed to go.

Powderhorn East was scrubbed of all memory by July 27th, though a visitor to the city may have wondered about the stark orange netting draped over the playground, and shiny metal signs (“NO OVERNIGHT ACTIVITY OR CAMPING ALLOWED AT THIS LOCATION This is not an authorized encampment site.”). That afternoon, White Earth Nation Chairman Mike Fairbanks, President Larsen of the Lower Sioux Community, Park Board Commissioner Londel French, Rep. Gomez and Council Member Cam Gordon gathered in a half-moon to speak at a press conference, commiting to do what they could to ensure no more violent evictions.

A note that Londel French and Rep. Gomez in particular showed up, many times, all the time, not to speak or to listen but just to do whatever was required; and it’s sad to me, still, that our cry and theirs was reduced to “do not evict encampments.” Because of course do not evict encampments — and — no one who wants to live inside should be living outside in a state with the resources to house everybody in the first place. Withholding and gatekeeping those resources behind a barbed wire fence of housing lists and subsidy requirements and professional statements of need is a criminal act and human rights violation and that’s not up for debate.

The next day, MPRB issued a permit for Lake Harriet, allowing 15 tents, total, including those already there. Not twelve days prior, the Board’s own website stated Harriet had space for 20.

On July 31st, MPRB served “Notices of Transition” to Powderhorn West, citing “safety concerns” and “location within a safe school zone.” The Notice of Transition set no deadline for complete removal (“next couple of days”) and offered other parks until cold weather makes it untenable for camping and limited shelter as the solution for residents. Even the most generous definition of transition implies moving from one state or condition to another. Not moving from one state or condition to nothing.

It’s wise to keep in mind these were residents who watched, from across the bowl: police shoveling tents into the gaping mouths of industrial dumpsters, sending people either to jail or to another park, guns on their waist; and it becomes easier to understand why a “couple days” didn’t really bring the peace.

That same day, MPRB denied a permit for Brackett Park — the only park established for exclusively women and children, with services, security and support specific to their needs — because it was a school zone, never mind a school not in session, never mind the putrid philosophy underpinning the argument that school children should never bear direct witness to a crisis of unsheltered homelessness, never mind that school children can also be unsheltered, never mind that their mothers are not receiving any more assistance from the state than they were 30 years ago.

On Monday, August 3rd, residents held a press conference at Powderhorn West to demand their right to autonomy, and MPRB said, “we’re not evicting you now, we’re just threatening to remove you soon not sure when” and everyone was like, “oh, well, in that case,”

MPRB also issued a permit for Marshall Terrace that day, for 15 tents total, despite earlier communication that Marshall Terrace had space for 19, another honest mistake.

The next day, land “owned” by the Community Planning & Economic Development agency at 26th & 14th was fenced off.

On August 7th, MPRB finally shared their list of parks “capable of accommodating encampments”: AYM*, Beltrami*, BF Nelson, Boom Island, Bryn Mawr, Franklin Steele, Nokomis, Logan*, Lyndale Farmstead*, Minnehaha*, MLK*, Riverside*. Those with asterisks were “full” by the time the list was posted. At that point, there were permits only for Harriet, Marshall Terrace, and the mall, so every other park on that list remained subject to clearing.

That day, the Park Board sent staff to Peavey Park to announce they would return the following week with buses, to clear the space and move residents to Franklin Steele.

August 8th, Loring Park received 48-hour eviction notices.

Three days later, August 11th, Kenwood, Elliot and Peavey got theirs. No deadline.

MPRB updated its website the morning of August 12th: “These notices are not the same as the incremental approach at Powderhorn.” (INCREMENTAL?) “MPRB has advised people to move immediately.” Of course law enforcement is the “last strategy,” and of course that day, cops showed up at Kenwood and Peavey.

One bulldozer and seven cops at Kenwood, with a MPRB Commissioner who did not answer questions about the eviction notice being vague and without a specific time frame, and told volunteers that it simply was not a designated park. According to the cops, the language “eviction” was misleading; parks aren’t leased. Exactly. Exactly.

On August 13th, Bryant Square Park, 48 hours.

On August 14th, Loring, again.

At 8 a.m. on August 14th, Powderhorn West residents woke up to police unzipping their tents, the second and last time.

The “Notices of Transition” were, at that point, two weeks old, and no one had heard anything. Bulldozers mangled every standing tent and police arrested three people, barking at one resident — for requesting extra time to pack their belongings — to get behind the tape or get in handcuffs, losing the only photos of their family they had in possession.

A few miles away, the city swept Peavey. At this point, not one permitted encampment had space. Some people moved to Logan, some to Beltrami, some to the Wall of Forgotten Natives.

Four days later, August 18th, Bryn Mawr residents got their 48-hour notices. And Loring, again. The next day, ten Beltrami residents moved to Edgewater (smaller encampments, wasn’t that the point?). Police at Edgewater within 15 hours of establishment, evicted, back to Beltrami.

August 21st, Loring, it happened that time, evicted, swept, like it never happened.

Volunteers assisted residents in moving to Columbia Park. Across the river, officers informed Camp Kellogg they would receive an eviction notice on August 24th. A notice of eviction notice. The clown show continues.

On August 22nd, Columbia was evicted, in the depth of the night. Residents were loaded into buses and dropped off at BF Nelson. Couple hours later, police hand out eviction notices with no timestamp at Matthews Park.

F12, through it all, was coordinating distribution at parks, plus a couple hotels, and keeping pace with the moves and evictions and moves, making 250 meals, Tuesday-Sunday, for between twelve and fifteen parks.

That was a lot. It’s always a lot, but August was something else.

The thing about the Park Board. It’s definitely true, what they said — that the board was not built to address unsheltered homelessness — but no one is, so everyone is, and the least they could’ve done is not made it so much more painful. It will take a lot of data requests to learn who in the City Council was pressuring MPRB, and which predatory real estate companies and developers foaming at the mouth to gentrify every block of Minneapolis was pressuring those councilmembers. In the absence of what should be transparent, public information, it’s safe to assume, every last god damn one.

This writing is as of March. Since August, Jacob Frey, the City of Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, the Minneapolis Police Department, Minneapolis Park Police, CPED, Hennepin County Railroad Authority, and Hennepin County Sheriffs have either authorized or conducted a sweep of nearly every single encampment, be it in a lot, an underpass, or a park. Governor Tim Walz, the Minnesota Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, and nearly every member of the legislative body save for Rep. Aisha Gomez have said nothing.

The violent and abusive attempt by MPD to clear Near North on March 18th was technically unsuccessful, but it depends on how you measure. We still fund a police department salivating from the teeth to disrupt, disturb or damage community spaces, be it at Near North or George Floyd Square. Trauma compounds and builds upon itself like a beast. Minnesota is one of the 15 states witnessing an uptick in COVID infections, at the time of this writing, and deployed 20 squad cars for an encampment of 20 people faster than they could mobilize additional vaccine opportunities. This is where we are. This is what we are dislodging ourselves from.

“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” — Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal”