Compassionate or counterproductive?

Jacob Frey’s tent city policy must be judged on results, not its intentions.

As tents began springing up along Hiawatha Avenue in South Minneapolis this summer, newly-elected Mayor Jacob Frey vowed the City of Minneapolis would respond with a different type of approach. Instead of the usual tact of clearing the growing homeless encampment, police were instructed to embrace it, dispensing food and hugs, and listening to the problems of the people at the camp.

What began as an attempt to address this situation with compassion quickly resulted in the number of tents growing from a handful to more than 200.

One of the people who left their homes to join the encampment was 20-year-old Wade Redmond, who passed away due to a drug overdose in the camp in September. In total, four people have passed away from overdoses or drug-related health complications at the camp, where opioid and methamphetamine use are common. Other residents left their homes to join the encampment due to struggles with mental illness, drug addiction, and other issues in their lives, the Star Tribune reports.

Minneapolis has been working since mid-summer devising a plan to relocate the residents to a temporary shelter before the onset of winter. In October, the city passed a measure designating the temporary shelter as a community redevelopment project, which allowed it to divert $1.5 million to build shelter for approximately 120 people near the encampment. However, it remains unclear how many residents from the encampment will seek refuge there.

In contrast to Minneapolis, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the City of St. Paul recently disbanded a smaller homeless encampment near Cathedral Hill, hoping they would instead take up residency in nearby homeless shelters.

However, MPR reports, “That’s an unpopular option among people at the encampment who say shelters don’t feel safe, are too restrictive or require them to leave behind pets or loved-ones.”

Some of the residents at the Minneapolis encampment have expressed similar opinions, posing additional challenges for city officials who hope to provide shelter for the residents with winter closing in.

There is no easy answer to addressing these challenges, but the experience of this encampment dispels some of the common myths surrounding homelessness and the housing debate in Minnesota.

One of these myths is that people will not leave more-permanent housing to join encampments such as these. Another myth is that we will get people off the streets merely by funding more shelters.

No one wants to see people suffer, which is why public policies must be judged on their results and not their intentions. Mayor Frey and the City Council were counterproductive, not compassionate, and the feel-good photo-ops of the mayor hugging residents ultimately incentivized harmful behavior.