Nadine Little needed to charge her phone. The afternoon sun was high and bright in South Minneapolis as she headed west, past the rubble and ash of the buildings that had burned just days earlier, toward Powderhorn Park, where she had heard there was electricity available. She arrived to a small flurry of activity on its upper expanse, with people milling around and eating snacks. She approached a group of people standing near a table to ask for a charger; within moments, a bit stunned, Little was tottering further into the park, arms loaded with a new tent, pillow, and blankets. She owned a tent already, which she had been sleeping in with her boyfriend not far away, but she picked a spot on the park’s east side and set up camp anyway. She eyed her new surroundings from beneath a thin sheet of bangs. “What if something happens?” Little thought. This would give her another place to go.
Like many other precariously housed people in the city and across the country, Little had not been protected from losing her apartment by the local eviction moratorium in response to Covid-19. She had mostly been staying home during the early days of the pandemic, watching the news as cases rose across the country. At the end of March, an incident with her former roommate made her living situation untenable. “I lost everything in a day,” she said. With nowhere else to go, she began sleeping on the Greenway, a wooded bicycle trail that runs below the city’s high-traffic streets. She had never been homeless before.
Just as Little was settling herself into the streets, the county began a new initiative to start pulling others out. Public officials feared that the city’s shelters, which had long been overcrowded, would become Covid hotspots. They leased three hotels just outside the city, near the Mall of America, and filled the rooms with seniors and otherwise medically vulnerable people, mostly out of the shelter system. Members of the county’s Homeless Access Team, a nine-person department tasked with case management in the shelter system, were reassigned from their usual duties to fill and staff those hotels. In the first week of the program, more than 200 people were moved in.
It wasn’t nearly enough. The Point in Time count—an annual one-day tally of people experiencing homelessness mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development—identified 642 people living outside last January, as shelters were near or at capacity. That number grew visible—and very likely simply grew—at the onset of the pandemic, after the governor’s shelter-in-place order banned the sweeping of encampments, allowing people sleeping outside to remain in one place.
Zach Johnson, a part-time member of the Homeless Access Team at the time, was frustrated that the county’s hotels were largely inaccessible to the city’s unsheltered population—the people, like Little, who were sleeping outside. He began participating in mutual aid efforts in the city and had been eyeing the mostly vacant Sheraton Hotel, just off the Greenway, as a possible option for temporary housing. On the morning after Lake Street burned in late May, following the police killing of George Floyd, Johnson and another activist, Rosemary Fister, visited the hotel and arranged rooms with the owner for the first 20 people who arrived.
“The thought wasn’t that we were going to run an anarchistic, utopian, harm-reduction shelter,” Johnson said. The idea was to move people inside. The National Guard would be deployed by curfew that night, effectively turning the streets of Minneapolis into a war zone, and the hundreds of unhoused people across the city were in danger of becoming casualties. Government workers, too, were going around to the nearby encampments to offer emergency hotel stays before the curfew fell, where they encountered volunteers from the Sheraton offering free rooms and food for the homeless just down the street. By the next morning, more than 100 people were inside; over the following week, the numbers continued to climb.
At the Sheraton, organizers and volunteers committed to a leaderless and nonhierarchical structure, and designated the hotel an explicitly abolitionist space where police were not welcome. Word of its existence spread quickly: Some residents showed up after hearing about it at a local resource center, or on the street, as Little did. Elected officials and philanthropic donors were curious to see what was happening. A Facebook page was made for the “Sanctuary Hotel,” a volunteer shift signup form was circulated, and a GoFundMe raised over $200,000.
The aspirations of the project soon ran up against the increasingly urgent needs of residents and the relative inexperience of volunteers. Little, while staying at the Sheraton, became active in the mutual aid project; she attended volunteer meetings, picked up linens, and took out the trash. She walked the halls checking in on people. “It was organized as best as it could be,” she said. “It just seemed like the negativity came about too much.” There had been a few overdoses; fights broke out on occasion. The volunteers, mostly untrained, grew overwhelmed, along with the people staying there.
When the sanctuary at the Sheraton collapsed in early June, after the hotel’s owner capitulated to neighbors’ complaints and deactivated the residents’ keycards, it did not mark an end to the mutual aid work; it simply adapted, sparking a summer of reckoning over Minneapolis’s housing and homelessness crises. Activists who had spent years on the political fringes were catapulted into the center of an uprising that grew in parallel to the anti-police-violence protests and targeted the same racist structures, calling for housing justice, accessible mental health services, a robust social safety net, and destigmatized addiction treatment, among other expressions of social care. Unhoused people in the city who had been shuffled around for years were better able to organize collectively and voice the realities of their own living conditions, and they gained an audience to their plight. From March until August, in tandem with this rising movement, Little would move 10 times, experiencing an accelerated pattern of displacement that is common to unhoused people in cities across the country. But she wasn’t thinking of that as she staked her tent at Powderhorn; she simply needed a safe place to sleep.
Powderhorn Park was a well-calculated target for what quickly became a sprawling, ambitious mutual aid effort. For several years, activists in Minneapolis have identified the city’s park system as a locus of, and a possible solution to, injustices within and around communities. Minneapolis parks, which rank first in the nation for access and quality, cover 15 percent of all city land, and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board runs a yearly budget of more than $120 million. It also oversees its own dedicated police force, which is not affiliated with the Minneapolis Police Department, though its “peace officers” are similarly armed and outfitted. For several years, Parks and Power, a local nonprofit that seeks racial and economic equity within the Minneapolis park system, has targeted the park board, an elected body, to achieve its vision. Powderhorn, named for the curved shape of the lake that sits near its center, is where the Minneapolis City Council chose to publicly announce its intent to disband the Minneapolis Police Department in early June. In this way, Minneapolis parks are not only green spaces but also a stage.
There are grill-outs during the summer and an ice rink in the winter, but Powderhorn Park is perhaps best known for its yearly May Day parade, which features a giant puppet show put on by a local theater and culminates in a festival. By the time Little began living at the park, the scene there had the same mood, with tent encampments set up in two areas—one on the west side, and a second, larger one on the east—along with pop-up canopies, clusters of portable restrooms, and one formidable tepee. There was live music on the park stage and cornhole boards laid out in the grass. Fold-up tables were piled with diapers and sanitary goods, stores of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, and racks of used clothing. Hot food was served for free, and a plywood lean-to stored excess materials. The harm-reduction approach at the park made living there feel more manageable for many of the residents, including Little, who describes herself as an alcoholic. A sign with camp rules, which had been agreed upon by residents of the park, was posted on a tree: “Respect the locals,” “Respect the volunteers,” “Respect everybody.”
When the park police came to Powderhorn Park in early June to deliver the usual notices to vacate, citing the exception to the statewide ban on grounds of safety concerns within the encampment, neighbors who lived in the houses lining the perimeter of the park intervened, staging an impromptu rally and calling their local representatives in support of the small encampment. The area, a bastion of liberal politics and social justice nonprofits, swelled with new energy after the uprising. Little felt it: “There’s been a lot of people coming in to volunteer, helping out with clothes and food—a little bit of everything,” she told me. Lee George, who lives in a house adjacent to the park, said he also sensed an awakening among his neighbors about the extent of the crisis, as they repurposed an active protest WhatsApp channel to support the new encampment. “The beautiful thing is the fact that we know simply kicking these people out of Powderhorn isn’t a solution or an answer,” he said in June. “There is a compulsion for people to address it at this time.”
Jake Virden, the lead organizer of Parks and Power, agreed there was a palpable shift after George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests that roiled the city. On June 3, the park board announced its commitment to reducing its collaboration with city police. Soon after, the superintendent of the parks rescinded the order to vacate. Getting the park board to deliver a single portable restroom at a nearby park at the onset of the pandemic had been like “pulling teeth,” Virden said, but days after the Powderhorn eviction was blocked, the board voted to designate Minneapolis parks a refuge for unsheltered people. The resolution authorized “all necessary administrative actions” to make them as safe and habitable as possible for the homeless population, and committed the board to work closely with agency partners to secure support in service of long-term housing solutions. “The more people are aware that our most vulnerable neighbors are living without housing, and it’s front and center, the more we can gather the political will to make change,” Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Jono Cowgill said the next day. “This is one example of what has been, for years now, a housing crisis in the state and across the country, and we’re seeing it manifest right now in one of the premier parks in the city of Minneapolis.”
Cowgill was right about the depth of the crisis. According to the 2018 Minnesota Homeless Study, led by a local foundation, an estimated 19,600 Minnesotans experienced homelessness on any given night in 2018; on a single night in October of that year in Hennepin County, the number was 4,072. Nearly 50 percent of all adults experiencing homelessness in the county are Black, and 15 percent are Native American, even though they represent approximately 14 and 1 percent of the overall population, respectively. Yolanda Bowers, a Black woman who moved into the eastern camp at Powderhorn, had faced homelessness in the Twin Cities region for 30 years. “I’m just tired,” Bowers said, crossing her spindly legs as she sat in a patch of scorched grass. “I’ve never utilized Minnesota services when it comes to housing—they haven’t came.” After almost a year into her time on the county’s coordinated entry process to obtain subsidized housing, she said she still hadn’t received a call. (Half of the county’s adult unhoused population is in a similar holding pattern, and the wait time averages more than a year, according to the 2018 report.)
Minnesota’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness cites a lack of affordable housing as a key contributing factor to unstable housing and homelessness. According to the 2018 Minnesota study on homelessness, in which over half of respondents experiencing homelessness cited an inability to secure housing, one of the most common reasons for leaving their last place of residence was unmanageable rent or house payments. Proactive measures, such as the 2018 change to zoning laws in Minneapolis that ended single-family zoning in an effort to encourage the development of affordable housing complexes, have so far failed to produce housing at scale.
There have been 10-year plans, improved coordination among agencies, and many millions of funds allocated, but the problems persist. As is the case across the country, efforts in Minneapolis to combat homelessness are still often piecemeal and reactive. The county and the city both rely on funding from the state, which, despite its liberal leadership, tends to advance short-term solutions to a deeply systemic issue. In 2018, when the Wall of Forgotten Natives—a homeless encampment named for its demographic makeup—grew to over 200 inhabitants, the city fast-tracked the development of a navigation center, where harm-reduction and case-management services were available. “All of these people were so visible, and I think the city of Minneapolis was really ashamed of it, so they had to come up with solutions,” said Adam Fairbanks, an independent consultant who helped build and staff the center, which closed the following spring. In September of this year, unhoused Native Americans returned to that stretch along Hiawatha Avenue to protest the persistence of the crisis and reclaim the space for a new encampment.
In early July, Little, who had grown increasingly vocal during her time at the Sheraton and Powderhorn, stood in line outside the headquarters of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, waiting to give a short speech. The park board would be voting that day on a resolution that would roll back some of the protections it had granted to the unsheltered population just two weeks earlier. Despite an initial outpour of community support, anxiety over the encampments was rising.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, at least 60 police calls were made out of Powderhorn in the month of June, involving overdoses, sexual assault, and weapons. The Powderhorn encampments had grown enormous—560 tents were counted in the park on July 9.
After initial meetings with organizers of the park sanctuaries, the city had directed some Covid Emergency Solutions Grant funds toward expanding contracts with private and nonprofit street outreach providers, and a lieutenant in the Minneapolis Police Department was deployed to connect homeless residents with street outreach workers. The city’s health department distributed masks and hygiene supplies, along with educational materials about the virus, and set up sharps bins and portable bathrooms at designated hygiene stations around the city. However, the management of daily needs and security at the park, as at the Sheraton before it, was in the hands of the volunteers, and it was a struggle.
Junail Anderson, who was the site coordinator of Powderhorn West and a member of Freedom From the Streets, a group that posits that people who have experienced homelessness are best equipped to advocate on the issue, had organized a security detail among the residents to try to ease friction when needed. “If it wasn’t for her, a lot of things that probably would have happened, didn’t,” Little told me.
Anderson, who sits on several nonprofit boards to advocate for the homeless, often found herself negotiating the increasingly thinning relationships between park residents and the residents of neighboring houses. At a neighborhood meeting in the park early in the summer, Anderson had bristled at the assumption, articulated by a local housed resident, that the encampments would make the park unsafe. She challenged skeptical neighbors on that point and later criticized the local policy around homelessness, saying that people are expected to act “the white way” in order to be deserving of help.
Residents and volunteers worked in shifts to patrol the area and try to de-escalate conflicts as they arose. Rasheed, who had done security work at the Sheraton while staying there earlier in the summer, also volunteered at the encampment. He was enjoying his security work at the park—“keeping people safe is a wonderful feeling,” he told me—but would have liked to be paid for his labor. He had found securing the Sheraton more difficult. “There was so much going on, it couldn’t stabilize at all,” he said about the hotel. Tracey Blasenheim, a volunteer who became the site coordinator at Powderhorn East, agreed that security was tough to implement but noted that many of the city’s unhoused residents are deeply mistrustful of police. “The fact that people come to us at nine or 10 in the evening, and tell us that this is the place they feel safest, is really sad,” he said.
Within a few weeks, however, it became apparent to those who lived in Powderhorn, both inside the park and in the surrounding houses, that the east camp had become chaotic and unsafe. Shootings occurred at night and in broad daylight. Neighbors who were generally partial to buzzwords such as “checking privilege” and “amplifying the voices of BIPOC” were suddenly being tested on their front lawns.
When volunteers began to feel threatened at the park, too, they shut down operations. Many of the residents of Powderhorn East fled, either to the west side, which was still functioning, or to another park completely. Little, who had originally moved into the east encampment, relocated to Powderhorn West. As conditions at the encampment deteriorated, she found herself longing for a bed, a hot shower, a little quiet—all of which were starting to feel impossible at the park.
At the park board hearing, Little turned her attention to a more lasting solution than the park could offer. At her turn, she approached the podium, introduced herself, and began to speak. Her voice rose with emotion: “There are buildings—abandoned buildings, abandoned homes—all over, around the city … fix them up and put us in there!” She allowed a pause in her statement, as others whooped and snapped, before offering a conclusion. “I’m a resident now at Powderhorn Park, and that’s all I wanted to say. Thank you.”
The board voted to strike the amendment from the agenda that evening; however, two weeks later, commissioners passed a similar amendment curtailing the number of tents allowed in certain parks, which were required to be outside school zones. (Powderhorn is within a school zone.) When the police came to evict the east encampment at the end of July, they arrived with Bobcats, which began scooping up the tents. “They didn’t care about nobody’s stuff, they cleared everything away,” Taurus, a Powderhorn resident who watched the episode from across the park, said. Little, who had by that point left Powderhorn for a different park, was arrested, along with around 20 others, standing defense in front of the last tent in a symbolic gesture of protest.
The board tried a different approach at Powderhorn West, allowing two weeks for residents to relocate, before the park police showed up with two front-loader trucks to clear the park and two school buses that had been chartered to bring people into shelters. In statements given to the local press, Hennepin County stressed that there were still open beds, but on that day, the buses remained empty. “If people are choosing to sleep outside, I think they’re telling you that they don’t want to go into the thing you built,” Johnson told me. For the second time in about as many months, an enormous community care project was forced to a close.
Homelessness policy in Minneapolis, as elsewhere, tends to look like a game of hot potato. An unsheltered person sets up on city property, others join, and the city sends them away. They enter a park, and park agents move them off. They take shelter in trains, and the transit council clears them out. They go to county land, and the county pushes them aside. “It goes on and on, and a lot of money is spent, but it’s not the kind of money that shows up as a line item on a spreadsheet because it’s across these different entities,” John Tribbett, the program manager for street outreach at St. Stephen’s Human Services, said. “There’s a lot of energy expended moving people around, without resolving the issue, but moving them around keeps them less visible.”
This dynamic—which effectively hides the extent of the problem through constant motion—can obscure the actual issues. “The problem isn’t the camp in Powderhorn … or all the other smaller camps,” Tribbett said in June. “The problem is that people don’t have a place to go that works for them.”
As the former residents of Powderhorn Park fanned out in other parks across the city, the ad hoc sanctuary movement, too, had to reconfigure once again. When the Sheraton fell apart, there was a general consensus that the power imbalances between volunteers and residents, often exacerbated by a mostly white and housed volunteer force with limited experience in these issues working with unhoused residents who were largely Black and Native American, was a core weakness. According to Yusra Murad, a sanctuary organizer, it was regrettable that those same dynamics—the “charity service model,” as she called it—were replicated among some volunteers in the parks, particularly in terms of the control and distribution of supplies. But the issue went deeper than a need for more democratic practices. “This is not to shift any accountability for any part that volunteers or coordinators may have played in difficult situations,” Murad said, but those involved were navigating a system “structured to perpetuate these cycles of trauma and harm.” After months, the police remained the only public force mobilized by the government to address the encampment crisis at scale.
For all the hope and possibility that the sanctuary movement envisioned in the parks, it saw hard limits, as well. No one thought that outdoor tent encampments, managed by residents and a supporting cast of untrained volunteers, were an adequate solution to those cycles of harm, but they often struggled in daily operations. There was an impulse among organizers to meet people’s needs, but it wasn’t always clear how best to do that. Early in the summer, a volunteer at the Sheraton expressed how wonderful it felt to say yes to residents when they asked for something; in August, a different volunteer reflected that an unexpected muscle she had to train over the course of the summer was saying no, adding that it was “not healthy and certainly not empowering for anyone” to over-promise or overextend in a mutual aid environment.
There were political fractures, too. While the more militant, abolitionist wing of the sanctuary movement remained unequivocal in its demand for the government to end displacement without offering housing, others sympathetic to the cause expressed tactical reservations after watching the events of the summer play out. “I think advocacy efforts from neighbors within Powderhorn are going to decrease because it’s not in their front yards, right in their faces, so elected officials can go back to playing the shell game with people’s lives and moving them around,” Lee George said in August. He was critical of the police eviction of Powderhorn East but suggested that public officials had drawn a lesson from the experience. He pointed out that sanctuary organizers had been given ample opportunity to relocate the residents of Powderhorn West before the second eviction, by way of notice from a community outreach group, which, he thought, could have modeled a future solution that did not involve policing.
City officials have defended their response to the crisis, which included committing $8 million of Cares Act funding for emergency shelter, and cited recent and future policy changes, including to the zoning code, in their efforts to increase the types of housing available to people experiencing homelessness. According to Andrea Brennan, the director of housing policy in Minneapolis, it wasn’t possible for the city to engage with the sanctuary movement directly without knowing its values or leadership structure. “We’ve just been inundated with form emails that have gone out to all elected officials,” she said, referring to mass emails sent by sanctuary supporters calling for immediate housing solutions.
Many of the main coordinators of the sanctuary movement—“if it’s even a thing,” mused one of them—reiterated that they were expressly not an organization but a loose coalition. Volunteers and residents held a wide range of views about viable solutions, especially around abolition, but Murad pointed out that “defunding the police opens up a nice stream of money to invest in housing,” and that there are existing organizations already poised to do the work.
But for all of their complexities, the encampments and the movement that grew out of them—fractured and amorphous as it was—shifted the political ground. “Hotels 2020” has emerged as a shorthand as the best short-term resolution to the crisis as winter approaches. Johnson, who has worked in and around the shelter system for a decade, praised the county’s hotel program, piloted in March, saying it “made life better for more people, faster and in a bigger way, than any other government response I’ve seen,” but added that it should have been expanded for the huge numbers of people living in parks across the city.
Marching on the state Capitol in September, protesters called on the government to lease or purchase entire hotels to shelter and house the homeless. “Don’t rent them,” Johnson said. “One reason they’re so expensive—and the county loves to talk about how expensive they are—is because they keep renting them.” An open letter to the governor co-signed by over a thousand people statewide identified the Hotels to Housing program as a target for reinvestment and job opportunity to help solve the homelessness crisis. (At the end of the month, the county announced its intent to use Cares Act funding to buy two properties for that purpose.)
The influx of Cares Act funding presents a unique opportunity for the county, city, and state to collaborate on long-term solutions to the homelessness crisis. In addition to the purchased hotels, the state, county, and city have together committed to opening three new shelters, though only one is slated to open before 2021. The sanctuary movement had lobbied over the summer for the use-it-or-lose-it funds to be directed toward solving homelessness, including for more permanent supportive housing, and it’s clear that the advocacy from community members toward that end was driven by the sudden, unprecedented visibility of a long-term crisis.
After the Sheraton closed, organizers began partnering with ZACAH, a local Muslim charity, to raise funds and temporarily buy hotel rooms for vulnerable residents of the parks, which is how Little came to be stretched out on a neatly made bed on the fourth floor of the Comfort Inn, at the end of August, propped up on a pillow. Next to the bed, Brookie Flying Hawk, a chatty Dakota woman who had been homeless for the past five years, sat in an electric scooter, facing her. “I didn’t even know she was in the hotel since I went downstairs!” Little said excitedly. The two women had met while staying at the Sheraton; when Little found Flying Hawk in the Comfort Inn lobby almost three months later, she cried out, “Auntie!” (“I used to go with her nephew,” Little explained.)
The hotel stay had offered Little a period of relative calm. “I’m taking care of a lot of things that I couldn’t before, since I’ve been here,” she said. She had been able to get onto General Assistance through the state, and signed up for the emergency relief program offered by Red Lake Nation, the tribe she’s enrolled in.
As the two women caught up, an aide knocked on Little’s door. He handed a flask to Flying Hawk—“Don’t mind me, I’m an alcoholic!” she said, storing it in her scooter’s compartment—and Little cracked a Natural Ice. “I was just starting to get sick,” she said, sinking back into her pillow.
Previously, when Flying Hawk stayed at another hotel, alcohol was not allowed on the premises. She was relieved to find this wasn’t the case when she got to the Comfort Inn through Simpson Housing Services, an organization that specializes in low-barrier shelters and permanent supportive housing, with staff to help people meet their basic needs. Her hotel stay would be guaranteed until an advocate at Simpson could arrange a permanent solution through the rapid rehousing program.
Little’s stay at the Comfort Inn was set to expire the next day. She had been tense speaking on the phone with a sanctuary volunteer who was trying to help locate her old tent, which had been put in storage when she went into the hotel. She didn’t know where she planned to go, either. Leaving the hotel was set to be Little’s eleventh move since she lost her apartment. But after hearing Flying Hawk’s story, she perked up.
“I’m not used to this,” Little sighed. “I’m not used to having a bed again, I’m not used to being able to wake up and take a shower again. Sometimes I just want to go back to my tent, because I got so safe and secure there, but when I’m in my tent, I’m, like, ‘Geez, I wish I had a place and a room!’”
Flying Hawk was running through options, trying to help. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better, unless we voice our opinion, unless we start … doing some outreach,” she said. The women compared notes on what their tribes offered—Flying Hawk is Yankton Sioux—as well as ways to obtain bus cards and relief stipends. Flying Hawk left a voicemail for her case manager at Simpson, saying that her niece was homeless and needed help. He called back five minutes later and advised Little directly.
Back on the Greenway, where Little had started the summer—before the uprising, before the Sheraton and Powderhorn—the tented residents lived as densely as ever. As bicycle commuters coasted past a bridge tagged with green-and-blue graffiti that read “RENTER POWER,” people stayed in clusters, chatting or playing with a makeshift basketball hoop, making the place home. The unsheltered population, estimated to have increased since the beginning of the year, was largely scattered once again, but smaller parks still contained smaller encampments, which were still being sustained by mutual aid and community donations.
As Little spoke on the phone, Flying Hawk contemplated the maze she had navigated to land as far as she got. It was the same one Little was still finding her way out of. “Now that I’m getting help, and I know about these places where you can get help, I want to go back out there and hand out resources to homeless people,” she said thoughtfully. Although she didn’t know when her housing would come through or where it would be, it was a moment to relax, and she would wait.