Feb 6, 2024 - News

Minneapolis weighs legalizing safe outdoor spaces as alternative to homeless encampments

A bright yellow sign reading 'Evictions KILL' hangs on a fence outside a homeless encampment with an American flag waving over the entrance and tents visible in the background.

Camp Nenookaasi on Jan. 4, 2024, the date Minneapolis officials ordered the camp closed. Different iterations of the camp have been swept from two different locations since then. Photo: Kyle Stokes/Axios

Creating legal, regulated ways for people experiencing homelessness to camp outside is top of mind for some Minneapolis City Council members.

Why it matters: Proponents argue that the depressing cycle of encampments and city-led sweeps points to the need for a city-sanctioned alternative.

State of play: In just the past week, Minneapolis officials cleared the same unsanctioned encampment twice, only for residents of Camp Nenookaasi to reassemble at another location each time.

The big picture: A "safe outdoor spaces" ordinance is one of several homelessness proposals that council members Jason Chavez, Aisha Chughtai, and Aurin Chowdhury are drafting for introduction in the coming weeks.

What they're saying: Nobody wants people living outside, but "we have to accept reality as it is," Chughtai told Axios. "The goal is to make a deeply tragic condition as safe and regulated as possible. In the absence of codified regulation, the encampment crisis as we see it is going to continue."

  • Building permanent housing takes years and costs millions, and Minneapolis needs places for unhoused people to live in the meantime, Chughtai said.

The other side: Minneapolis has looked into the sanctioned encampment idea before, a spokesperson for Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement — but officials in other cities told them unsheltered people tended not to use city-run sites.

  • As a result, the number of unsanctioned encampments in other places did not decrease, the statement said.

Zoom out: Lead author Chavez drew inspiration from Denver, which recently changed its zoning code — without much controversy — to allow nonprofits to establish "temporary" sites where unhoused people can sleep in tents, their cars, or tiny homes.

  • In Denver, organizers provide not only sanitation facilities, but also round-the-clock security service — which Chavez said could address a major fear, both for people living in an encampment and neighbors.

Context: Advocates for the homeless argue that closing encampments is counterproductive, saying the sites give people something akin to an address where social service providers can locate and help them.

  • Organizers of Camp Nenookaasi — which court filings say swelled to some 170 residents at one point — claim they've had success connecting residents with more permanent housing options and drug treatment.
  • Other low-barrier shelters and treatment options run by different non-profit organizations are already operating in Minneapolis with city support.

Yes, but: The unregulated versions of large encampments have put the city in a bind. Officials say violence, drug overdoses and other public health concerns at Nenookaasi left them no choice but to clear it.

  • Todd Barnette, Minneapolis' Community Safety Commissioner, said last week that the city's goal is to connect people with services and that providers are always on hand for encampment closures.
  • "You don't need to have an encampment for city and county employees to reach out," Barnette added. "They will continue to reach out where people are."

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