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Phillips neighbors pitch city-sanctioned homeless camps

6 April 2022

When Minneapolis city crews clear one homeless encampment, another often pops up just a few blocks away. And when they clear that one, a third soon appears.

A dozen encampments have spouted during the past two years in the Phillips neighborhood, where residents are banding together in search of solutions, including the idea of a “safe outdoor space,” a city-sanctioned outdoor encampment with a certain level of management, security, hygiene, housing and addiction services.

“It’s been a living hell,” said Phillips resident Donna Neste. “Encampments have drawn so much crime, so much violence, and I’m not even talking about just toward the housed, but toward the unhoused. We decided we have to look at solutions.”

About 75 neighbors, loosely organized as the Phillips Community Safety Coalition, gathered at the East Phillips Park community center on March 30 to propose a slew of suggestions. These include:

  • A standard encampment policy with a rapid delivery of services and intervention to camps near sensitive areas such as residential homes and child centers.
  • New scripts for 311 and 911 operators that are more sensitive to the homeless.
  • Office of Violence Prevention street patrols.
  • A homelessness advisory board.
  • The establishment of “safe outdoor spaces” [SOS].

These SOS areas are another type of temporary bridge to housing for people who — for a variety of reasons — reject emergency shelters with group settings. However, they are typically still managed under certain rules of conduct, particularly toward drug use.

The Twin Cities Recovery Project, a peer recovery organization, is willing to operate it.

“If you take someone out of an encampment and put them into an apartment without addressing their mental health or their substance use issues, they don’t sustain their housing for long,” said TCRP Chief Operation Officer Karissa Lash. “The safe outdoor space would be such an amazing thing because some people don’t want to be indoors but at the same time need to feel safe and have a shelter.”

City Council Member Jason Chavez, who represents Phillips, said he is working with city staff to identify potential sites for an SOS.

“The few [people] that have some hesitancy about it [is] because they don’t know much about it, but once they hear about what it does, they agree that it’s a much-needed thing,” he said.

Representatives of the American Indian Movement, city and county staff, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley and State Reps. Omar Fateh, Hodan Hassan and Aisha Gomez were also present at last week’s meeting.

In a follow-up interview, Frey was skeptical of the SOS model because Minneapolis is much colder than most other cities that have tried it, county staff oppose it, and conversations with other mayors over the years have convinced him that government-sanctioned encampments do not solve the problem of unsanctioned sites.

“There’s a number of reasons that people … decide to be in encampments, and one of them … is to be beyond the reach of government enforcement,” he said. “If that’s one of the reasons, then you’re not going to go into a sanctioned camp.”

The mayor advocates for building more modern shelters like the Avivo tiny-home indoor village and culturally specific Homeward Bound, as well as affordable housing developments like Peregrine in Hawthorne and the Flats at Malcolm Yards in Prospect Park, both of which include units at 30% of area median income.

Hennepin County Director of Housing Stability David Hewitt said that county focuses its energy in the fight against homelessness on placing people in housing with the right mix of support. When it comes to the SOS model, he points to a 2018 report from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness as well as the city’s challenges with operating the temporary Navigation Center, which succeeded the Wall of Forgotten Natives, as notes of caution.

“People staying within these kinds of settings are still unsheltered, still living outside, still homeless, and often settings have difficulty providing a truly safe, healthy and secure environment,” Hewitt said. “There are opportunity costs … to operate a site 24/7 with staffing, with all of the structure, especially when you’re trying to manage the risks, manage the Minnesota winter. [They] are not necessarily that different from the cost of putting an equivalent number of people into housing and supporting them.”

Sheila Delaney, a longtime advocate for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, believes that an SOS would provide an opportunity to build upon the success of the Near North encampment last fall, when the county and city set up a service tent in an intense effort to connect every willing resident with housing, ultimately reducing the camp of about 30 households to a couple of individuals over the course of two weeks.

“That wasn’t very hard, it just took intentionality and coordination of people who were already doing the work,” Delaney said. “We were able to reach people, even some of the people others had deemed ‘service-resistant’ or ‘just wanting to be outside.’ … It was that steady contact over that two-week period where they could build trust with people who had resources and services useful for them that seemed to make a lot of difference.”

Desmond McCloud, a former resident-leader of the Near North camp who is now in recovery through the Twin Cities Wellness Center and Recovery Gym, agrees that if given the opportunity of another safe alternative to emergency shelter, riding the trains or wandering the night, people would “most assuredly” use it.

McCloud said he sympathizes with neighbors for whom the chaotic reality of ad hoc encampments pose a significant stress. That number of people living at the Near North camp has since grown again to about a dozen people as the camp continues into its second year, he said.

He urged Minneapolis residents to recognize the loss of hope among those undergoing long-term unsheltered homelessness and create easily navigable solutions to overcome their deep distrust.

“It takes some coming alongside the residents that are unhoused and kind of helping to nourish them,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that just aren’t nourished but are willing, so it takes time. Dealing with human beings, it’s not textbook.”

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