August 13, 2020
Over the past weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with dozens of Powderhorn residents and encampment volunteers. Learning from their experiences and reducing harm is what compels me to write this message to you today.
Like many cities across the country, Minneapolis has been facing the pressure of rising rents and extremely low vacancy rates. We can surmise that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated our local economy and likely pushed more people into homelessness. Powderhorn Park became a site for the largest outdoor and unregulated encampment in the history of Minneapolis, but it did not succeed in providing a safe and sustainable housing environment for our unsheltered neighbors. Additionally, the process in which this effort was established was troublesome. Caring voices and sincere concerns about this project were often shouted down or bullied away. Others, who were willing to help or wanted to learn more, were shamed for raising sensitive questions. A culture of silence to repress worries or inquiries was webbed to forge a narrative that seemed to affirm that the end justifies the means. In one instance, a camp organizer maced a woman who was on park grounds asking questions about the rapes against children that had taken place at the encampments.
I was disappointed. This is not the Powderhorn way.
Despite this experience, I and many other City leaders remained committed to fighting for dignified housing for all. Our City resources worked quickly with our partners to deploy the help and support our new neighbors needed. I hope you can take the time to learn about these efforts and become familiar with the details of this work on the City’s Homelessness Response website and in this press statement highlighting funding for three new homeless shelters.
I’ve been humbled and impressed by the immense level of compassion, dedication, and action from Park Board Staff, City Staff, County Staff, State leaders, and neighbors who have worked around the clock to support the hundreds of unhoused neighbors who started to live at Powderhorn Park. Appropriately, Hennepin County’s Homeless Access Team has been out at the park every day last week supporting unhoused residents and connecting them to comparable or improved housing options. I know this work has happened throughout the life of both encampments at the park and it is the type of quiet and steady work that has been able to establish dignified housing pathways for many of our new neighbors.
Resources continue to prioritize housing of the most vulnerable residents at the encampments, offering reliable transportation and connections to experienced and culturally relevant support systems like the American Indian Community Development Corporation (AICDC), St. Stephen’s, and AVIVO. There continues to be open shelter beds for those willing to take them, this includes families and single adults. City, County, Park, and non-profit Staff will continue to talk to every remaining camp resident to work towards connecting them to more sustainable and safe housing options.
Safety for both unhoused and housed residents in our neighborhood has become a growing point of attention and priority for this situation. I want to deeply thank the women who supported the survivor of a double rape last week, even as they faced threats from camp organizers, they stood their ground and held her up. Overall, we know there have been four reported sexual assaults, two were towards two minor children. What concerns me the most is that these are the reported cases that we are aware of. I worry about how many more have gone undetected. The perpetrators who violated the 42-year-old woman last week are still residing, held unaccountable, at the West camp. Mad Dads, like other groups of people who were providing service and support to the camps including medics and port-a-potty cleaners, pulled out of working at the encampment citing safety concerns. I have received credible reports from residents who have witnessed multiple guns present at the encampments.
While these challenging themes are not new, they are unique in their scale and size to this location. It is true that violence against women and children is not always preventable, but I cannot stand by to either normalize this level of known abuse (some elected leaders have told me “that’s just the way it is”) or enable it. I believe we hold the responsibility of interrupting this cycle of sexual abuse and gun violence. I have listened to many conversations with neighbors who are working through issues of complicity, accountability, and sorting through the complexities of what it means to take action and say "enough is enough.”
I stand with confidence in stating that the situation that has been created at the West encampment is not safe, sustainable, or healthy for both unhoused and housed residents. Parks, while attention grabbing, are not a housing solution. I support us in continuing to work in a holistic manner to house unhoused residents while working swiftly to sunset the West encampment. I welcome authentic and consensual discussions that lead to sustainable solutions to provide for our community in ways that do not sacrifice the safety of women and children.