Minneapolis encampments breeding despair — a better solution is within reach

Several Minneapolis City Council members have taken the bizarre stance to prolong the existence of the city’s largest illegal homeless encampment which has taken over the better part of a city block in South Minneapolis.

Such a move would benefit no one and would only ensure more misery and disfunction for area neighbors and the encampment residents.


Homeless encampments in Minneapolis have sprung up with regularity in recent years.  Some have been small (15-20 people), others have quickly grown large (150-200 people). Some have taken over city, county, or state land adjacent to roadways, while others have taken over private property in residential neighborhoods — often vacant lots immediately adjacent to homes, businesses, and schools.

Increased garbage, drug paraphernalia, human waste, drug use, prostitution, noise, foot and vehicular traffic, theft of water and electricity from homeowners, violence and intimidation have all become common experiences for city residents living near these encampments.

Tragically, overdose deaths, stillborn babies, assaults and murders have all occurred in these encampments in recent years. Just last week a wheelchair-bound homeless man in an encampment near the Twin’s stadium was intentionally set on fire by an assailant and rushed to the hospital with burns over half of his body.

These encampments are urban wastelands, filled with lost souls unwilling and incapable of helping themselves.

The city has determined that the encampments fall under the authority of Regulatory Services, which enforces city ordinances involving unauthorized temporary housing, dumping refuse and waste, and interfering with pedestrian and vehicular traffic. 

Regulatory Services has developed a comprehensive plan to identify, assess, and clear these illegal encampments when they arise. The process can take weeks or months of evaluation and engagement of encampment residents with county and contract resources for housing, chemical dependency, transportation, and storage of personal belongings.

Eventually, the city posts the intent to clear the encampment on a specific date. Unfortunately, too frequently, this forewarning has only led to the encampments growing rather than shrinking and has turned the encampments into areas of resistance.

Mayor Frey has backed the Regulatory Services approach to the encampments and disagrees with many of the council members who have routinely opposed shutting the encampments down. Fortunately, the council lacks the authority to alter how the mayor chooses to enforce regulations.

Camp Nenookaasi

The most recent encampment, named Camp Nenookaasi, took root in September and has grown in numbers that now exceed 180 people, mostly Native American. It has taken over vacant lots that encompass a large portion of the city block at East 24th St. and 13th Ave So. The camp consists of tarps and plywood with several chimneys poking into the air. 

It’s a public safety disaster, commonly known to be inhabited by opioid addicts, seemingly hopeless and unwilling to accept help for their addiction. Earlier this fall a dead newborn was found with a mother in the camp. 

Neighbors have complained about the encampment and the garbage, traffic, crime and disfunction it has brought to the area.

A group of some 30 Native American organizations including the Indian Health Board has called for the camp’s immediate closure:

“Not only are crimes being committed regularly, but they are also being hidden from police with threats of and physical acts of violence, to those who would normally report.”

Ryan Salmon, interim chair of Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors

A former homeless response coordinator for the city described the encampment situation as follows:

“It’s 100% an addiction issue.  This is not a homeless issue. They are homeless because of their addiction.”

With all of this history, information, and support to clear the encampment, it seems completely reasonable for the city to move forward with its plan this week.

But 8 of the 13 City Council members have sent the mayor a letter requesting the camp be allowed to remain in place until February 16, 2024. These council members, many of the same who failed in their attempt to force the mayor to delay encampment closures last year, made these three requests:

  • Delay the planned eviction of those in the camp until Feb. 16
  • In the meantime, “pursue all efforts to address public health needs at Camp Nenookaasi and the surrounding community.”
  • Collaborate on short, medium and long-term solutions for homelessness.

Some of the comments made by these council members included the need for more time, and the need to provide more dignity to the encampment residents.

These requests ignore several important facts. The city has already delayed the closing of the encampment far longer than it should have. As a result, one young life was lost, and the misery of hundreds of other lost souls has been needlessly extended. The city and county have worked to connect with the 180 plus residents and get them help and services they need to address their addictions and their lack of stable housing. Anyone in the camp who would be willing to accept help would get it.

As for showing dignity, it’s unclear how allowing hopelessly addicted individuals to live under tarps for the winter is providing them “dignity.”

Calls for more delays simply kick the can further down the road, subjecting neighbors, and encampment residents to more disfunction and misery.

It’s time for Minneapolis and Hennepin County leadership to exhibit tough love in addressing the problem of unsheltered homelessness. 

Shutting down Camp Nenookaasi while doing everything in their power to connect encampment residents with resources is a good start.

Involuntary Commitment — a Call for Enhanced Use

It is time for Minnesota leaders to consider expanding use of civil commitment to address the multitude of addicted and/or mentally ill people who have become our unsheltered homeless. When people resort to living in subzero weather by laying under a tarp, they have demonstrated their inability to care for themselves.

Many uber progressive jurisdictions like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York have come to recognize that the problem of drug addicted and mentally ill unsheltered homeless does not resolve itself. Each of these jurisdictions have started to employ various strategies involving the involuntary commitment of those suffering from addiction and mental illness — the theory being it is not humane or compassionate to allow people who have demonstrated a lack of ability to care for themselves to remain on the streets.

The University of California’s California Policy Lab analyzed surveys of 64,000 people who were homeless across 15 different states and found that 78% of the unsheltered homeless suffered from mental illness and 75% from a substance abuse disorder. Fifty percent experienced both.  

Aggressively addressing addiction and mental illness that so often leads to unsheltered homelessness is the only real compassionate thing to do. It could also prevent more extreme public safety threats from developing. 

Look no further than this past weekend where a man with documented mental illness, recently evicted from his apartment, inexplicably killed a man working in a Loring Park shop by violently impaling him with a golf club.

The proper response to the problem of addiction and mental illness and the associated problem of unsheltered homelessness is to respond with firm compassion — i.e. tough love. 

City, county, and state public safety, public health, and justice leadership would be far more compassionate and offer more dignity to individuals if they developed and enhanced systems that involuntarily treated individuals who have demonstrated a persistent inability to care for themselves. 

Minnesota citizens would all benefit from this change in strategy.

Given the state of homelessness as we approach 2024, our leaders must consider the use of involuntary commitment where appropriate. To do nothing is to condemn many to prolonged hopelessness, and a life of indignity.