Homeless encampment closure plans — A work in progress

“The Quarry” homeless encampment has been operating illegally for over a year just east of the Johnson Street exit off I-35W in NE Minneapolis. The city recently developed a plan to remove the encampment on Wednesday, 12/28/22. 

Despite good intentions, the city’s strategy failed. See report from WCCO News here

Previous removal plans called for the police taking a lead role in removing the homeless — a tactic that had led to several physical confrontations. Other strategies included providing little or no notice of the planned removal, as officials had noticed encampments often swelled in size after a removal was announced — sometimes because activists wanted to create a confrontation, and other times when other area homeless attempted to take advantage of the promise to provide shelter to anyone at the encampment when the removal occurred.

Considering these concerns, the city set about to develop a plan to remove the Quarry encampment. The plan involved giving advanced notice and working with the homeless (between 10-12 recently), to determine their needs and to line up shelter for them. The plan also called for civilian staff to facilitate the removal of the encampment, and for the police to operate in a response role, not as the primary. These elements are what the homeless activists claimed were needed to ensure a better outcome for everyone.

Despite the city acting in good faith and being responsive to previous concerns, activists descended upon the site early Wednesday morning, forcing the city to postpone the closure. 

Wednesday evening the city released this statement:

Based on the totality of information the City received this morning, it was clear to us that there was an intention to have a violent confrontation with City staff over this encampment. As a result, and in keeping with the City’s commitment to de-escalation, the closure has been postponed.

For the past week, the City, Hennepin County, and partners worked to offer and connect all current Quarry encampment residents with indoor shelter space and storage options. This outreach work has additionally been happening for months. The City intentionally waited to post notice to close the encampment until there were enough shelter beds available for all residents. The City also spoke with leadership at Rescue Now yesterday and was advised that they have not had a full night (50 beds) since they opened last Wednesday. Rescue Now ensured that no one would be turned away. 

As of yesterday afternoon, all residents presently at the Quarry encampment had declined shelter options presented to them by the City’s Homeless Response Team.

Homeless encampments are illegal in Minneapolis and pose significant safety risks to unsheltered people and surrounding communities. Multiple fires, minors living at the site, and winter weather have all contributed to increasingly unsafe conditions at this encampment and the City’s decision to move ahead with a closure. 

The encampments are an unnecessary burden for the neighborhoods they are allowed to exist in, and are unquestionably an unsafe, unhealthy environment for the people who reside in them. 

Minneapolis is right to close the encampments. Mayor Frey was right to veto the City Council’s vote for an encampment closure moratorium.

Strategies must emphasize timeliness. The longer an encampment is allowed to exist, the more entrenched it and its residents become. The city and county should strive for days, not weeks or months, to prevent the encampments from taking on an air of legitimacy. 

Strategies should include outreach and communication, but must also understand that activist voices are too frequently misleading and are often not in the best interest of those they claim to be supporting. Know what the activist demands are, but don’t develop strategies and policies that attempt to appease those demands.

Strategies should be designed so the police are a secondary element, there only to provide public safety, not to physically remove homeless from their shelters. 

Strategies should be focused solely on the long-term well-being of the homeless people inhabiting them, and the neighborhoods that are forced, through inaction, to accommodate them.  

Efforts should be made to connect homeless with resources to stabilize them, move them towards shelter, and eventually housing. When homeless refuse to accept this assistance, officials and our courts should consider ways to forcibly mandate intensive drug, alcohol, and mental health evaluations and treatment where warranted.  

Those who “choose” to live under a tarp in subzero weather clearly are struggling to act in their own best interest — and a government that turns a blind eye to hopelessly inebriated citizens living under a tarp isn’t acting in anyone’s best interest.    

The problem of chronic homelessness is complex and will not be solved by a few simple strategies laid out in a short article. However, focusing on what’s best for the homeless (not the activist), pushing back against the “right to homelessness” argument, and doing so in a timely manner will ultimately help us all.