Powderhorn Park has recently become an area of refuge for those experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

When they look out at the homeless encampment that has sprung up in Powderhorn Park since rioting and arson ravaged Lake Street, some neighborhood residents see a potential haven for alcohol abuse, drug deals and other crimes. 

Alex Richardson, however, sees people who need a helping hand. Trey Torres sees familiar faces from his own days on the street. 

During the worst of the violence following the police killing of George Floyd, Richardson and some other residents opened up conversations about how to protect the neighborhood. But as homeless people moved south from Lake Street to the park, the communication has evolved. Now neighbors stay in touch to share their concerns about the encampment, to help its residents and to push for stronger government action. 

“We either could continue to pass the buck and say, ‘Hey park police, kick them out,’ Or we could say, ‘Nope, that stops here,'” said Richardson, who was born in the neighborhood and moved back four years ago, when he turned 21.

Richardson and several other Powderhorn area residents took the time to meet their new neighbors. On June 12, when the park police entered the encampment and served people with 72-hour eviction notices, they called the park board office to demand that the notice be terminated. A few days later, on June 17, the board voted to make the city’s parks a refuge for the homeless, but it is set to consider an amendment Wednesday night that would restrict such sanctuary to 10 tents each at 10 parks. 

AK Hassan, a park board member, criticized the proposal at a news conference, saying it would further displace homeless people and put unrealistic expectations on them. While the encampment is “not safe, dignified or sustainable,” Hassan said, government at all levels has provided no real options. 

“We cannot kick people out and turn our backs,” he said.   

South Minneapolis is known for its Latino and East African communities, and many in the encampment are from marginalized Black and brown communities. But Powderhorn has become a noticeably white middle-class neighborhood, and some neighbors say that many of those now voicing concerns about the park’s safety are white. 

Richardson has a different perspective. 

Having spent nearly his entire life in the Powderhorn area, he doesn’t recall a time where the park was not considered dangerous.

Richardson’s mother met his father, a young, undocumented Mexican, while living in Powderhorn. The two separated shortly after Alejandro—who now goes by Alex—was born in 1995. All his life Richardson felt that he balanced himself between his mother’s white family and his father’s Latino side. He hopes that by involving himself and other people of color in this conversation, he can help bridge the difference. 

The homeless encampment, which officials estimate to hold 180 tents, has opened the eyes of white residents who have settled in the neighborhood recently, Richardson said. “People of color have been dealing with this our entire lives.”

“Services have done nothing for these communities”

In 2018, a homeless camp developed just to the north near the intersection of Franklin and Hiawatha avenues, growing to include several hundred tents. Many of the residents were Native Americans. Despite problems including fires and drug overdoses, the camp stayed there for months until the city moved its residents before winter. Smaller homeless camps have popped up elsewhere in Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

In the wake of that experience, as many as a dozen volunteers at a time now provide services at the Powderhorn camp and keep supplies in makeshift storage units. Some of them came from the Sanctuary Hotel that was housed in the former Sheraton Minneapolis hotel on Lake Street. They wear vests or nametags, and pass keys to each other as they change shifts. To date, the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement has raised nearly $250,000 for the Powderhorn camps. 

Camp residents can go to a medical tent for first-aid supplies or clean needles. Safe needle-disposal bins are available, placed on the ground near the park’s pathway. A massage therapist is also present. 

The lack of government leadership in dealing with the camp has been frustrating to many in the neighborhood. A Facebook group labeled “Action Now: Powderhorn Sanctuaries” has served as a soapbox for residents to air concerns and share information about the encampment. Some have used the forum as a place to air their frustration with the camp’s presence. 

One resident suggested that the tents and nearby cars be photographed to keep an accurate count of park occupants. The post met mixed reactions from the group, and the idea was abandoned. Another post spoke to concerns about safety for both the homeless and for the residents of the surrounding area.

“It is natural and right for people to be concerned for their own safety,” wrote a resident who signed the post Cathy McMahon. “Just as many advocates are arguing for the safety of the homeless, it is also natural for all residents to do their best to stay safe.”

The encampment rests on the edge of the park with trees interspersed between tents. A thin rope lines a boundary around the east end, while the steep hill on Tenth Street serves as a natural boundary. Most of the tents stay closely clustered to keep it from spreading out.

One camp resident broke off from the group and moved near the lake. A few neighbors rushed to the Facebook group and called for a confrontation with the man. A resident commented in the post that volunteers from the camp had convinced him to return. 

Other problems have proved much more serious. Reports circulated over the weekend of the sexual assault of a minor in the park. Dawn Sommers, a spokeswoman for the Park and Recreation Board, confirmed the report and Minneapolis Park Police said Sunday that they had made an arrest related to it. 

The establishment of this homeless camp coincides with a reduced police presence that followed Floyd’s death and the debate over defunding the Minneapolis Police Department. The defunding idea got a large boost when City Council members announced their support for disbanding the police force at a rally in Powderhorn Park. 

Tensions between neighborhood residents and those who want to take a more community-based approach have spilled out of the Facebook group into apartment hallways and sidewalk confrontations. Last Wednesday, a neighborhood meeting attempted to overcome the differences. 

The gathering was billed as a listening session, and reporters were kept out. While some residents wanted to discuss how things like accountability, leadership and enforcement of rules worked in the encampment, others regarded those as manifestations of conventional white power structures. 

“Those services have done nothing for these communities,” Richardson said. 

The office of City Council member Alondra Cano, who represents the 9th ward, is in contact on a nearly daily basis with state officials, said a spokesperson, “Not only to coordinate, but to advocate for those resources that we know are going to be crucial in filling the gaps.” 

The city of Minneapolis has partnered with organizations in the Twin Cities to combat homelessness. The spokesperson pointed to St. Stephen’s past work with city and county officials as an example of how to provide housing, given adequate resources. The nonprofit was born out of an initiative launched by members of the St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis, and provides emergency shelter throughout Hennepin County to dozens of people who have insecure housing. 

Richardson isn’t impressed with the government response so far. “They acted exactly how I expected them to act,” he said. “The only difference is, us as a community responded in a way that they were not expecting.” 

“I know that the government has the funding to be able to help the poorest of the people”

For volunteers such as Torres, the issue is all too familiar. 

“I know a lot of people here from the community, just from the streets and stuff. I knew a lot of them when I was using heavily,” he said. He walks around the camp picking up garbage from the floor and checks in with those he greets in passing.

Torres, 27, is originally from Saint Paul, but moved to Minneapolis at 21. He and his mother struggled for years to find secure housing, but they found an apartment in April. Having secure housing is helping him on his road to recovery, he said, and solving the housing problem would help others, too. 

Torres says he sees many vacant homes around the city that could change someone’s life. Tears welled up in his eyes and began soaking into his mask as he talked about it. “I know that the government has the funding to be able to help the poorest of the people out,” he said.

Everyone agrees that there is a role for government officials to act. But for Richardson, the lack of action by elected officials amounts to a greater impetus for the community to find its own solutions. 

“I’ve always known as a person of color in this city, I’m never going to be the first one to be sat down at the table when they’re handing out slices of pie,” he said.  

Abdirahman Mohamed is a Somali journalist, filmmaker, and contributing reporter for Sahan Journal. Born in Mombasa, Kenya, Abdirahman was raised in St. Paul’s East Side. He works as a producer and specializes...