Jan 3, 2024 - News

Minneapolis can clear Camp Nenookaasi homeless encampment, judge rules

Illustration of two gavels in a dueling position.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A federal judge will not stop Minneapolis from clearing a homeless encampment of roughly 150 people in the East Phillips neighborhood on Thursday morning.

Why it matters: Camp Nenookaasi highlights the Twin Cities' dilemma with homelessness. City officials say it must close "due to extremely dangerous conditions." Yet many residents say they have no safer place to sleep.

  • Activists have argued that clearing it would continue a "vicious cycle" of encampment closures that only drives residents to gather elsewhere.

Driving the news: Two Camp Nenookaasi residents sued Mayor Jacob Frey this week, seeking to pause the city's plans to evict the encampment. On Wednesday afternoon, U.S. District Court Judge Eric C. Tostrud denied the request.

What they're saying: In their complaint, the plaintiff's attorney, Kira Kelley, argued that punishing their clients for sleeping outside when they "do not have reasonable alternatives to living at Camp Nenookaasi" violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment."

  • Kelley acknowledged that Nenookaasi couldn't remain open indefinitely, but asked Tostrud to "give the camp more time" to negotiate with the mayor and the city for a permanent solution.

The other side: Minneapolis' attorneys say health and safety conditions at the camp have deteriorated to the point where the city must step in.

  • In the last four months, attorneys said the camp had seen a "fatal shooting, the death of a newborn baby, a drug overdose death … and more than 100 911 calls" for health and safety issues. They also said that every resident has been offered shelter services.

The intrigue: In 2018, advocates for unhoused people in Boise, Idaho, won a major legal victory based on a similar argument. The Ninth Circuit's ruling in that case set a new precedent for nine Western states under its jurisdiction.

Yes, but: Tostrud ruled that the issues in Minneapolis are different from the Idaho case.

  • For example, in Boise, judges flagged a city ordinance that made it a criminal offense for people to sleep outside on public property. Minneapolis has no such criminal penalties, so Tostrud found that ruling wouldn't apply.
  • Tostrud also rejected similar arguments from Nenookaasi's attorneys that closing the camp would violate residents' property and due process rights.
  • "I made this decision because I've done the best to follow the law, and this is where the law leads me," Tostrud said. "Making policy decisions isn't the job of a federal district court judge."

Flashback: This is the second encampment eviction in the neighborhood in recent months.

  • In August, MnDOT cleared an encampment along Hiawatha. As Sahan Journal reported, many of the residents of that encampment wound up at Nenookaasi, just a few blocks away.

What's next: City officials have posted notices listing Thursday as the eviction date.

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