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Homeless community scrambles as city enforces northeast Minneapolis encampment closure

14December 2021

The two dozen people living in tents on a slice of city land in northeast Minneapolis knew they had to be out by Tuesday. Volunteers who had supported the camp throughout the past year arrived at dawn, driving trucks to help move the encampment if they couldn’t persuade the city to hold off.

“My other camps are great, but I love this camp. It’s more peaceful. It’s quiet. We chat, we talk, we don’t bother anybody,” said volunteer Keekee Bey, whom encampment residents had elected to be their spokeswoman. “The things people say about them or how they feel about them, they’re still just as human as us.”

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Street Reach team arrived by 9 a.m., followed by the Minneapolis police, Public Works trucks hauling Bobcats and trash bins, outreach workers with the Department of Health, fresh faces from the city’s newly contracted Behavioral Crisis Response, St. Stephen’s Human Services and Avivo.

Volunteers and city workers had a brief standoff in the Case Beer Warehouse parking lot, with neither side speaking to the other.

Gradually, residents began to break down the tent complex — some structures had elaborate designs of wood framing insulated with foil — and pile their belongings in oversized trash bags.

Dee Williams, who lives in a camper and had assumed a leadership role at the encampment, accused the city of doing more to surveil residents than help them survive. “It’s vulnerable people here. Especially when you’ve got an encampment with a lot of females, there are people who don’t stay here trying to prey upon them,” he said. “When stuff does happen to people here, we’re afraid to call law enforcement because they’re gonna turn it around on us and make it like we’re the perpetrators.”

The encampment was located near Sheridan Memorial Park on N.E. 13th Avenue across from Bunny’s Bar and Grill, where employees have publicly complained about people using drugs, washing themselves in the bar’s bathrooms and stealing a scooter and a tip jar. This summer a large fire broke out at the camp, engulfing a swath of tents. A community meeting with area businesses was held, after which camp residents promised to make a stronger effort to keep the area clean and quiet.

“We talked to them and they changed their mind and it was a good compromise,” said camp resident Feenix. “We kept people off their steps, we kept people from behind their businesses doing drugs. We stopped all that from happening.”

Gunshots go off and hotrodders speed up and down the streets, but those problems don’t stem from the encampment, he said.

City of Minneapolis spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said the city approaches encampments with the belief that they are a risk to the people who live in them, and the city and community must work together to provide housing.

“Signs were posted on the site beginning Nov. 30 notifying residents of the pending closure,” she said of the Sheridan camp. “The encampment was closed as a result of public health and public safety concerns. Winter poses additional public safety challenges as people often create fires to stay warm.”

McKenzie said outreach teams have gone to the site repeatedly to offer assistance, and 17 households have received economic assistance, healthcare and housing assessments from Hennepin County’s Homeless to Housing team. Those families have case managers who will continue to work with them after the camp is gone, she said.

Tuesday morning, outreach workers informed some camp residents that they could obtain immediate shelter by going to the county services referral center on Chicago Avenue. But when they got there, they were told that the intake process required more time, said Williams.

Some camp residents indicated they would try to move into other encampments such as the one located in the North Loop, across the street from the Salvation Army store and donation center. That camp was established on private property.

Tamra Helmerson-Parent, who lives a couple blocks away from the encampment, choked back tears as she watched Sheridan camp residents rush to collect their possessions ahead of the city’s skid steer loaders. She has given them food and water in the past, and said that while neighbors have a variety of opinions about the camp, she doesn’t hear many specific complaints about the individuals who lived there.

“It’s winter, they have an established domain, let them stay,” Helmerson-Parent said. “I don’t get it. You’d think they’d want people to be cleared in the summertime when people are actually using the park more than the wintertime. They have nowhere to go. You’re just displacing people that are already displaced.”

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