BY KAY SCHROVEN
Shopping carts, clotheslines, outdoor cooking grills, mattresses, blankets, coolers, lawn chairs, backpacks, boxes of diapers, baby strollers piled high with supplies, wheelchairs, bikes, tikes on trikes, people in swimsuits lining up to shower in the facility provided by NECHAMA (the Jewish disaster response organization) and tents of every size, shape and color. Should you stroll through Powderhorn Park, you will see these, along with upward of 300 homeless individuals in about 400 tents inhabiting the park. That’s about 100 more than last month. The numbers have been increasing, with no definitive short- or long-term solution in sight.
If there were a soundtrack to the Powderhorn encampment, it would be the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” Like the rock and roll classic, the growing Powderhorn encampment is raw and needy.Obviously, there is a need for housing, but that is just the beginning. There is also an ongoing need for health care services including mental health, addiction recovery services, skills development, job getting and keeping skills, child care and so on. It’s difficult to approach any of these service needs without a foundation to work from, that is, without shelter.
Londel French, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioner at-large, is a familiar face in the park on a daily basis—an ally and resource to the homeless. Mr. French is very concerned about safety, and in lieu of real housing would like to offer the women and their children a camp of their own, where it is quieter and safer, with less competition for resources. He would also like to make sure that the guards are paid.
There are many angels in the park; they are volunteers, some associated with the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement. Junail, Fartun, Michelle and Elisa (to name a few) are coordinators who wear many hats. They spend numerous hours in the park, recently working in sweltering weather conditions, fielding a variety of matters, such as coordinating donations, for example. Today they are developing an inventory system for food donations. In addition, they train and work with volunteers in the outdoor, tented kitchen, the medic/health care tent, charging station, library and child care center. They de-escalate conflicts, often domestic in nature, and respond to the many individuals who come to them with needs: “Do you have any bungee cords?” “Who can help my daughter, she’s sick,” “Can you carry this box to my tent for me, I have a dislocated shoulder?” They are peacekeepers with the residential neighbors living near the park and coordinators with the press coming into the park to report, such as Southside Pride. And this is the short list of their involvements.
In spite of the far less than ideal conditions, there is a sense of community in the park. People help one another; they discuss issues and possible solutions, avoiding hierarchy as much as possible. When one of the homeless individuals who uses a wheelchair could not maneuver the entering and exiting of his tent, neighbors and volunteers worked together to rig up a new tent that made it easier for him.
According to the resident campers and volunteers, there are many meetings and rumors: the group will be dispersed to other parks; the empty Kmart on Lake St. will be their next home; they will be transported to an empty hotel in rural Minnesota. It is difficult to know what is real until it materializes.
Wednesday, the evening of July 8, there is an open meeting in the park. A group gathers in a circle. A volunteer takes the floor and circulates a letter received from a law firm. It seems that the firm is looking to capture funds related to the damages that took place at the local Sheraton Hotel while providing temporary housing in June. The volunteer explains that the Go Fund Me monies collected for the encampment are frozen until the matter can be resolved. She also makes it clear that staying in Powderhorn Park is not sustainable and that the plan is to move some people to other parks. She explains that the large number of people living in the park is causing too many issues related to safety and health. She points out that smaller camps would be safer and more livable. A discussion takes place about where to go from here; frustrations are aired as attendees fan themselves and drink water and Gatorade in the 90+ degree heat.
Jacy (not his real name), a 41-year-old Native American man who has been homeless intermittently for 10 years, is pleased to make a move and says, “I’m taking some of my people with me. I’m not saying where we go, but it is near the river. I like water and there are trails I can walk where I see eagles. They lift my spirit. I am used to sleeping without a tent so having a tent will be nice. “
Ron (not his real name), who has been guarding the camp for a month, especially the children, says he needs a shower and a day off. He reports that recently there is a steady line of “tourist cars.” That is, people in cars rolling by the edge of the park and leaning out of their car windows and taking pictures. He continues, “People get very upset knowing they might be photographed in their bathing suit, asleep, maybe nursing a baby.” Ron further reports that one “tourist” pointed out to him (when he asked them to refrain from taking photos) “I am a taxpayer and have a right to photograph anything I want in this park.”
Many resident neighbors have been supportive since the encampment began a month ago, volunteering and donating needed items. However, as conditionsdevelop, some are growing weary, as are the homeless resident campers themselves. In addition to the heat of the summer, there is foot and car traffic, noise, drug dealing, soliciting (of girls and young women for sex), parking issues and, sadly, crimes including vandalism, theft and rape. Unfortunately, there are predators who will take advantage of the vulnerable. For some predators, Powderhorn Park has become a target.
According to quotation sleuth Ralph Keyes: at the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication (11/1/77) in Washington, D.C., former V.P. Hubert Humphrey (1965-69) spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of a government. As quoted in The Columbian, he said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” If we believe this, we must also believe that the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota have failed the moral test.
Should our city leaders need inspiration and guidance to further tackle the problem of homelessness, perhaps they should look to some successes. Some cities are reducing and even ending homelessness. Amongst them are Trieste, Italy; Helsinki, Finland; and our own Rockford, Illinois. Rockford is the first in the U.S. to reach functional zero for homeless veterans and the second to do so for chronic homelessness (John Henley, The Guardian).Rather than start from scratch or reinvent the wheel, we can learn from these successful cities. We start by studying and participating in Community Solutions/Built for Zero, an organization and methodology that seems to be working. It requires moral courage, data-driven thinking and a systemwide approach. Of the 85 cities that have implemented Built for Zero, 47 have achieved reduction results. There is hope.