Seeking sanctuary: As parks become shelters, volunteers and neighbors help out where the government won’t

More than a month after tents started appearing at Powderhorn, organizers and community members say they're still waiting for a response from anyone.

More than a month after tents started appearing at Powderhorn, organizers and community members say they're still waiting for a response from anyone. City Pages

“Our parks are for the people.” “Protect the Powderhorn Sanctuary.” “Black Homeless Lives Matter.”

It’s July 1, and a crowd has gathered outside the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s headquarters. Many carry signs in protest of what they fear will be a severe rollback of protections for the unhoused seeking shelter this summer in Minneapolis parks.

Last month, in response to the growing number of tents in Powderhorn Park and in other parks around the city, the board passed a resolution declaring Minneapolis’s parks sanctuaries for people experiencing homelessness.

It was a victory for organizations like Parks and Power and for organizers at Powderhorn. “There’s something in the air right now,” said Michelle Smith, community leader at the East Powderhorn Park Sanctuary. “The whole world wants to change, and tonight we did it!”

But two weeks later, the board is voting on a resolution that would upend that decision, terminating the order allowing encampments of all sizes and limiting them to just 10 tents at 10 park locations beginning September 1. “I’m just incredibly confused by it because it seems to take a 180-degree position from what the board passed at its last meeting,” Brad Bourn told his fellow commissioners.

A group of Powderhorn residents, organizers, and community members go inside to make their comments before the board, while outside, members of the rally share their stories and demand action.

“There’s a crisis right now,” Jake Virden of Parks and Power tells the assembled crowd. “We know that our capitalist housing market is failing... and that the Park Board is the largest steward of stolen land in the city.”

“I know that this is a sanctuary state,” adds Kyle Wilson, a resident of the Powderhorn encampment, “so why aren’t parks a sanctuary?”

Community members gather outside the Minneapolis Park Board offices to support sanctuary park residents.

Community members gather outside the Minneapolis Park Board offices to support sanctuary park residents. Emily Cassel

Not much time has passed before the people who appeared before the board reemerge, victorious. Commissioners voted five to four to remove the proposal from the agenda. The sanctuary can stay.

For now.

The Park Board will vote again on July 15 to limit the number of encampments in parks to 20, with no more than 25 tents at each location. And though the sanctuary in Powderhorn shrunk in size over the past week, the number of parks serving as sanctuaries has climbed to at least 38. The unhoused population simply doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

The uncertainty makes Powderhorn residents like Rico, “a good friend of many, many, many of the people there,” nervous.

“How are we going to make progress when we all don’t know what’s going to happen?” he asked the assembled crowd in early July. “Everybody’s worried about that—the volunteers, the powers that be... nobody knows anything.”

The story of the Powderhorn sanctuary—like almost everything in this current moment—begins with the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death at 38th and Chicago, the Sheraton Hotel nine blocks north became a source of national intrigue—Mother Jones called it a “utopian sanctuary” in a city seized by unrest. Here, volunteers prepared meals, offered support, and provided medical care for more than 200 unhoused people. Community members dropped off food and bottled water, condoms and Narcan.

But with no support from the state or city, organizer Kat Eng says, this was an “untenable situation for volunteers.” Residents of the Sanctuary Hotel, as it came to be known, had already started pulling out when its owner issued an eviction order on June 9.

Organizers were able to place some sanctuary residents in other hotels around the metro. Eng had another idea: “That night, when the quote-unquote mutual aid effort withdrew from the hotel, I walked over to Powderhorn with, like, some tents and some boxes of pizza, and set up a pop-up tent and spent the night there,” she says.

She guesses there were eight or so tents set up in Powderhorn by the night’s end. A little over a month later, the Park Board estimated there were 560.

Each morning, the Minneapolis Sanctuary Twitter account shares a list of the most immediate needs. On a 95-degree day, that might be ice packs and popsicles and battery-powered fans; if a storm is in the forecast, they’ll ask for tarps, rain jackets, and ponchos. Small sedans packed with energy drinks, fruit cups, and other snacks—all constant needs—pull up to the donation intake tent at the intersection of 32nd Street and 10th Avenue, where volunteers help haul supplies up the grassy embankment.

Bentley, left, has been homeless since 2015. He met organizer Kat Eng, right, at the Sheraton sanctuary.

Bentley, left, has been homeless since 2015. He met organizer Kat Eng, right, at the Sheraton sanctuary. City Pages

More often than not, those dropping donations on the park’s west side are met by Jack Nobles, a wiry union stagehand who, if COVID hadn’t hit, would be spending his summer overseeing events at U.S. Bank Stadium. Outgoing and energetic, Nobles is there Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., answering questions from residents and acting as a volunteer point person. “Help these people out please!” he says to one volunteer who’s fielding questions. “Wave! Say, ‘Hey, how can I help you?’ This should be a welcoming experience.”

“I’m the person that, when you come in in the morning, I orientate you to what’s going on, tell you the mission statement about how we’re an autonomous collective, that there’s no actual hierarchy or anyone in charge, and that we’re a harm reduction site,” he says.

Nobles doesn’t have a background in working with homeless or vulnerable populations (he did manage a recovery tent at the Gathering of the Juggalos), but like many of the volunteers, he lives in the neighborhood and felt like he had to help. He saw support was needed at the Sheraton and walked in; more than a month later, he’s a fixture at the park.

Volunteers have been providing support at Powderhorn, but the people living there are the ones making decisions. “One really amazing thing about the sanctuaries at Powderhorn is that every day, residents have meetings where they talk about their self-governance, and they talk about their community issues,” Eng says.

Around 7 each night, they gather to discuss their plans and their concerns. “Everybody likes to be in the group and talk,” says Junail Anderson, the park’s West Side site coordinator and a board member of the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing. “We talk about issues and problems that’s going on and how we can fix those problems.” They established their own safety patrol with about 15 members who meet twice a day, rotating shifts, day and night.

“I feel very safe here,” says Rasheed, one of those security team members, who helped Eng set up camp that first night in June and is the Powderhorn sanctuary’s first resident. “I don’t feel like there’s any immediate threat. I don’t think we need police here. I just think we can handle anything that needs to be done in-house. That’s what’s part of having a great community.”

“Shit, it’s better than—say I did have a tent, and there wasn’t a camp like this set up,” says Bentley, who’s been staying at the park the past few weeks. “I really fuckin’ stress where I’m going to set up and where I’m going to sleep and be safe. Can I trust the people that I’m going be crashing next to?”

Bentley hopes his situation isn’t permanent. He has a year left on an associate degree, and it’s nearly impossible to go to school while you don’t have a home. He hopes for something more solid than a tent. But he’s been homeless since 2015, and for now, “It’s cool to not have to move around or worry about it. Once you get to know your neighbors, everybody kind of watches out for each other.”

The Sanctuary Hotel situation may have been unraveling toward the end, but Nobles—who clarifies that he doesn’t speak for the collective, only himself—says Powderhorn feels different. “It saved their lives,” he says of some residents. “They’re doing a lot better. It helped them a lot.”

It isn’t perfect. As in the rest of the city, there’s violence: A shooting in the park was reported Tuesday afternoon, the details of which were still unclear as this story went to press. But he feels Powderhorn has been misrepresented in many ways, and he’s frustrated by the way it’s portrayed in the media. There’s been fixation, from TV news especially, on three sexual assaults in the park this summer, two of which involved minors.

Those assaults are horrifying, but they’re also all reporters want to ask about; no one approaches Nobles to hear how for nearly two months now he’s fed 70-plus people a day, how he’s helped put nine people into housing, how he helped another four people get into rehab. The Park Board itself has misrepresented the community, wildly overestimating the number of residents by calculating that there were 1.5 people in each of its 560 tents. In fact, a survey conducted by the nonprofit Avivo found that at its peak, that number was closer to 282.

Yes, the situation can get tense. As we’re talking, a resident approaches a volunteer, accusing him of mistreating her while she was going through some donated clothing earlier, and Nobles departs to deescalate. Volunteers are tired. He’s had hard days, and he wonders if the system is sustainable.

Still, he shows up.

“Society has failed these people in an immense way,” Nobles says. “In a city where our fuckin’ police force owns a fuckin’ tank, and the city can pay $48,000 for a fuckin’ Bob Dylan mural... why can’t we have some sort of housing or something to help these people?”

That frustration is shared by the housed residents of Powderhorn, who have watched the encampment swell, bringing with it more traffic, more noise, and a new set of health and safety concerns.

As soon as she saw people setting up in the park, lifelong Powderhorn resident Lily Lamb walked over with some sandwiches and asked how she could help.

“I watched a volunteer who had clearly had a very, very long night and morning answer the same question over and over and over as neighbors would come over,” says Lamb, who has a background in volunteer management. “I was like, ‘Can I do that for you? Would it be helpful if I told people... what you told me?’”

Food and drinks — all donated — are handed out by community members and neighbors — all volunteers.

Food and drinks — all donated — are handed out by community members and neighbors — all volunteers. City Pages

Lamb and her husband both grew up in Powderhorn; her parents still live two blocks away. She says she and many of her neighbors have been disheartened by the response from just about everyone at every level—the Park Board, the city, the county, the state.

By way of example, she offers this: It took nearly three days to get a Porta-Potty to the east side of Powderhorn after people started setting up camp there. “I literally was on the phone with Biff with my personal credit card,” Lamb says. “That doesn’t happen in floods. That doesn’t happen in tornadoes. We’re still at a point where volunteers are supporting almost 100 percent of basic needs that are happening.”

“Imagine that there was a tornado that displaced 500 people,” Lamb continues. “In no one’s world would ignoring it be the way to deal with it.”

Like those staying in Powderhorn, Lamb and her neighbors have felt drowned out by the political workings that determine their day to day. Who are they even supposed to call for information? The Park Board? Their governor? City Council?

There’s confusion on all sides. In a normal, non-pandemic year, Park Board ordinances prohibit setting up tents without a permit and staying in parks overnight. Gov. Tim Walz issued a COVID-induced order superseding those rules, stating instead that governments can’t sweep or disband encampments unless they pose a documented health or safety threat.

But days after people set up camp in Powderhorn, Park Police started knocking on tents and handing out 72-hour eviction notices. The slew of emails and phone calls to the Park Board that followed is in large part what led to the resolution making parks sanctuaries for the unhoused.

“When I talked to the Park Board, they explained that housing is not their concern, which I completely understand,” Lamb says. “They also passed a mandate that said parks are open as sanctuaries, with no functional support to it, with no functional plan of how to manage that, how to support that.”

The board has since set up portable restrooms, a shower trailer, and trash bins—though neighbors note that’s not a long-term solution.

They’re frustrated, too, by the very lack of hierarchy and discernable leadership that’s fundamental to the structure of the Powderhorn sanctuary. “My neighbors were trying to figure out who was in charge and, as we looked into it, we quickly learned that this was community volunteer-driven, that there was no identifiable leadership,” says the founder of the Powderhorn Sanctuary Encampment Neighbors website (who asked to remain anonymous).

As the camp grew and neighbors struggled to get information or help from almost anyone, they realized they needed a reliable, unbiased, single resource for information on the encampment—especially when it came to finding out who to contact. On the website, there’s a list of the elected officials to reach out to and find out more about the situation at large.

“Our assumption really was by Friday they would have emergency housing, that was kind of the impression we were given,” says Jennifer Quam, who lives in Powderhorn with her two daughters. That was before “this slow realization that no one cared.”

“No response from the city,” she says. “No response from the county. No response from Walz. No response from the mayor. The only people responding are neighbors.”

Quam worries that the situation is dangerous, citing the sexual assaults. And she’s concerned for the people staying in tents through heat waves and thunderstorms, sharing showers and living in close quarters while we navigate a pandemic. “Parks are not an answer for the unhoused, nor should they be a crutch for the city or the county to do the right thing.”

She’s proud of her neighborhood, the volunteers, and the community for showing up and doing the work. “It’s just, it’s not our job. We are in over our heads. We’re overwhelmed. We’re heartsick. We’re afraid. We’re not safe. And when I say we, we are both the unhoused and housed residents of Powderhorn.” The people who live in the neighborhood and volunteer their time aren’t mental health professionals—they’re writers, contractors, accountants. They might not have experience with harm reduction or deescalation.

City Pages

City Pages

“I’ve had public officials say to me, ‘Well, what’s your solution?’” Lamb says. “I don’t have a solution, I’m not an expert in homelessness.”

“We’re the richest country in the world—we’re the best-rated state to live in across the United States—and we have essentially a refugee camp directly outside my house,” she continues. “And no one seems to care besides neighbors. It feels like we’re screaming into the void.”

David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, has never experienced anything like what 2020 has thrown at his staff.

It started with the Christmas morning fire at the Drake Hotel, which displaced more than 30 families the office had been supporting there, along with around 100 people who had been using the hotel as accessible, affordable housing.

“It was just the very week, I think, that we had finally moved the last person from the Drake Hotel into permanent housing that the COVID pandemic came to Minnesota,” Hewitt says.

Since the March 17 State of Emergency Declaration, the county has had to stand up, staff, and maintain hundreds of new units of protective and isolation space. At the same time, they’ve converted their entire homeless and housing system to be responsive to COVID-19. They’ve put $6 million toward hotel operations alone since mid-March, and have spent considerably more responding to coronavirus overall, including $15 million in rental assistance for people at risk of losing housing.

On May 13, Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis told the State Emergency Operations Center that Hewitt’s office couldn’t safely set up any more sites. And that was before the murder of George Floyd and the resulting uprising that displaced even more people in Minneapolis.

“I’m losing track of the number of crises we’ve had to respond to,” he says.

Of course, the housing shortage—both nationally and in Minneapolis—isn’t new. Powderhorn resident Lily Lamb says she heard it best described as “a catastrophe within an ongoing crisis.”

The “ongoing” piece begins with urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s, when cities tore down affordable, single-occupancy housing in “blighted” areas to make room for convention centers and parking lots. Then, in the ’80s, the Reagan administration oversaw the biggest cuts to the federal housing budget in history—78 percent between 1981 and 1989. Cathy ten Broeke, Minnesota’s director to Prevent and End Homelessness, says that as a country and a state, we’ve never really recovered from that.

“There won’t be one silver bullet to solving this,” ten Broeke says, “because it’s decades of a housing crisis.”

Rasheed, a member of the Powderhorn safety patrol, was also the sanctuary’s first resident.

Rasheed, a member of the Powderhorn safety patrol, was also the sanctuary’s first resident. City Pages

Instead, what we have are a number of government agencies, nonprofits, and philanthropic organizations all working to help our homeless population. Hewitt says his office has deployed its Healthcare for the Homeless team to provide vaccine hours and mobile COVID testing to people at Powderhorn Park and encampments across the city. They’ve authorized an additional $200,000 in funding to the American Indian Community Development Corporation and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center to get outreach workers on the ground. Other nonprofit outreach teams—Avivo, St. Stephens—are doing similar work, connecting people to openings in housing, shelter, and services.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan asked for $250 million in housing bonds this March—the highest that figure’s been in state history—$200 million of which could go to creating or preserving existing affordable housing. A deal to spend half that much fell apart in May, but could resurface as part of the special session this week.

But if and when additional funding comes in, Hewitt explains that his office will need to hire and train staff. The job outreach workers do is inherently time-intensive—they’re building trust, forming relationships, trying to understand people’s needs and how they can best help them.

Government doesn’t move at the speed of Twitter. But in a state that just announced it’s giving the Minnesota Zoo a $6 million bailout, neighbors are furious. Powderhorn residents have held several protests at Walz’s Summit Avenue mansion—Lamb says all they’re calling for, literally, is some sort of response from the governor. They still haven’t heard from him.

“I love it, I do,” ten Broeke says of the neighborhood outcry. She started working at church-basement homeless shelters in the early ’90s; this is her life’s work. “I’m grateful that people are calling for action and calling for housing. This is what we’ve needed—we’ve needed community will to build the political will to get the resources sufficient to meet the needs of everybody in our state.”

Hewitt says they’re already looking toward “the next crisis”—the end of the eviction moratorium Walz put in place at the onset of COVID-19. They know there are a lot of people out there who were barely making ends meet before COVID and who have since seen their work hours reduced or lost employment altogether.

“We’ve been pushed deeper and deeper into crisis response after crisis response,” Hewitt says. “It’s still crisis response. It’s still a stopgap solution.”

The only permanent solution, housing advocates will tell you, is just that: more housing.

The resolution before the Park Board tonight limits the number of parks with encampments to 20 and limits the number of tents per encampment to 25. It also creates a “temporary encampment permit” that can be issued to individuals or a group of volunteers, as well as nonprofits, legal entities, and government or non-governmental partner agencies. Permit recipients would claim responsibility for the day-to-day oversight and regulation at parks, and in turn, the board would provide restrooms, hand washing stations, and trash containers within 48 hours.

“With the last resolution, it was my hope that we could provide some of those guidelines. I think there was a lack of good communication about what exactly those guidelines would mean,” Park Board President Jono Cowgill says. “I’m hopeful that this time around, what we have is a resolution that’s really embedded in discussions with the organizers.”

The Powderhorn sanctuary has already started to disperse. On July 12, the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association shared an update: To ensure the safety and sustainability of sanctuary communities throughout the Twin Cities, volunteers were shrinking services. They’d still give out food and water and basic necessities, but not 24/7.

The People’s Laundry provides free laundry assistance and clothing to folks in need.

The People’s Laundry provides free laundry assistance and clothing to folks in need. City Pages

Sanctuary organizer Kat Eng says this restructuring will let volunteers provide more resources at more sanctuaries, and new sites have been set up at Minneapolis parks including Brackett, Riverside, and Minnehaha Falls.

Many of the residents of Powderhorn’s eastern community have left the park. But several tents remain in West, where neighbors say they’re still waiting for any sort of response or support from the city or the state.

When the City Council votes on its amended budget, Council Member Alondra Cano plans to seek $300,000 for training and implementation of community-based safety patrols on Lake Street and in the encampments. Just this week, the city and Hennepin County announced they will be accepting proposals for $14 million in COVID-19 relief funding, money that can be spent on “emergency shelter” and “street outreach.” But that money is up for bid in the form of grants, and none of it is earmarked for Powderhorn, or any other park.

“What we learned at the Wall of Forgotten Natives is that while no one entity is wholly responsible for homelessness and no one community has every tool they need to solve homelessness by themselves, when everybody is working together—city, county, state, philanthropy, community partners—we can do pretty remarkable things together,” Cathy ten Broeke says.

Hewitt agrees: Any long-term success in housing those who need it has to involve the community. And it has to involve those who are homeless—a person-centered approach that seeks to understand needs on a person-by-person basis.

“I’ve been there, but every homeless person is not the same,” says Junail Anderson, Powderhorn’s West Side site coordinator.

“Solutions for homeless people are going to have to be worked on with homeless people,” says Eng. “It can’t be people that have never experienced homelessness coming in and saying, ‘Here’s your solution.’ I think that’s part of what’s happening at Powderhorn Park—unsheltered people are learning how to organize themselves.”

Says Eng: “I think what is now on the table is: What does it mean for an entire community to be engaged in working through homelessness together?”