Rapid growth of homeless encampments during pandemic
Minneapolis has experienced an unprecedented growth in homeless encampments since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and other public, nonprofit and outreach partners approach homeless encampments with the belief that:
- Everyone experiencing unsheltered homelessness is vulnerable and deserving of being treated with dignity and respect.
- The City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and the State of Minnesota has a current shortage of affordable housing.
- Jurisdictions must work with community partners to connect people experiencing homelessness to housing, shelter and services.
- Encampments represent a serious health and safety risk – particularly for those staying within the encampment – and do not represent a dignified form of shelter.
Gov. Tim Walz has issued an executive order protecting the rights and health of at-risk populations during the COVID-19 Peacetime Emergency. It prohibits the disbandment of homeless encampments on public land, but was later clarified to allow for disbandment where there are documented public health or safety risks. Prior to the Executive Order, the largest encampment in the City was fewer than 10 tents.
On June 17, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioners approved a resolution declaring the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s commitment to provide refuge space to people currently experiencing homelessness. Encampments pose a serious health and safety risk, particularly for those staying in them, and those risks increase the larger encampments become.
Where do we go from here?
City and County staff are participating in discussions with staff from the State of Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and engaging with organizing leadership, outreach teams, and persons with lived experience of homelessness to identify plans for responding to the encampments throughout Minneapolis.
Collectively, we believe that everyone should have access to safe, dignified housing. We are committed to finding solutions for those who are unhoused. However, we also know that resolving homelessness, and in particular unsheltered homelessness, will take significant time and support from all levels of government and the community, and will require multiple strategies and interventions, including increased investment in new affordable and accessible housing options.
Some strategies that have been identified include:
- Increase City and County investment in culturally specific outreach and housing navigation services to make individual connections and help with housing and shelter placements. An estimated 110 new units designated for persons experiencing homelessness will be available for occupancy in Minneapolis from July 2020 through February 2021 (funded by City, County, State and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority).
- Using City and County awarded federal COVID-19 ESG funding to address immediate needs through expanded outreach and rapid rehousing services and make long term investments in expanding shelter capacity to serve underserved populations in culturally appropriate settings
- Continue to invest in new permanent, accessible housing for persons experiencing homelessness. An estimated 290 new units designated for persons experiencing homelessness will close on City and County, State, and/or MPHA funding programs and start construction in 2020.
- Pursue new housing opportunities, such as single-room occupancy type housing, that is affordable and accessible to persons experiencing homelessness.
Overview of response to date
It is important to note that we were in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, decades in the making, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has only been exacerbated by the pandemic and recent unrest in our community. We know that communities of color, especially our Black and Indigenous communities, disproportionately experience homelessness There is simply not enough housing available that is both affordable and accessible to those who need it.
Housing ends homelessness, and the City and County have significantly increased investments in affordable housing development in 2019 and 2020, with priority for housing serving persons experiencing homelessness.
In response to COVID-19, Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis, state and community partners moved quickly to protect homeless individuals living in congregate settings and provide direct support to people experiencing homelessness and the response efforts of providers. Actions were underway to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among this population even prior to the first Hennepin County confirmed case on March 6, 2020.
Highlights include the following:
- Hennepin County took immediate action to contract with hotels and move vulnerable, high-risk seniors and others out of shelters and into alternative accommodations. The County board has appropriated more than $6 million for this effort to date and more than 600 rooms are now available for people experiencing homelessness, including 507 protective units and 99 isolation units for people who are symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19.
- Hennepin County Healthcare for the Homeless registered nurses and social workers are providing direct outreach to encampments and are managing the triage process to ensure that the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness are given access to these rooms.
- The City has placed more than 27 hygiene stations throughout the city for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The hygiene stations include portable toilets, handwashing stations, sharps containers and trash receptacles.
- Officers from the Minneapolis Police Department Homeless and Vulnerable Persons Initiative coordinate with street outreach teams and provide support to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. They deliver food and water and helping people access resources that may be available to them.
- Coordinated by the State Interagency Council on Homelessness, 130 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the encampments were moved to alternate living arrangements at two area hotels being leased and managed by Avivo and Start Today Hennepin who are working to place these residents in permanent housing.
Partners from a broad coalition of government agencies, nonprofit and philanthropic partners are currently operating the largest and safest emergency shelter system that has ever existed in Hennepin County as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is existing emergency shelter capacity, especially for women, children and families. Partners are also working to open new spaces that meet the individual needs of people sleeping outside before the end of the year, and to make permanent improvements to ensure COVID-19 safety guidelines continue to be met at existing and new shelter spaces, as they have since the beginning of the pandemic.
The City has been working with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), state and county to respond to the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in city parks. MPRB has established a system to temporarily permit encampments at designated parks capable of accommodating an encampment. More information about park encampments can be found on the MPRB website.
Expansion of Shelter Capacity
The City Council approved an $8 million funding package to expand shelter capacity for three new shelters for people experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis, and subsequently approved an additional $1.97 million for operations of a fourth shelter site. The City has received a one-time influx of funding from the federal government, through the CARES Act, to provide help with responding to homelessness during the pandemic. This historically large, one-time Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding provides an opportunity to strategically respond to COVID-19 across a range of strategies and to reshape the City/County homelessness response system to better serve persons experiencing homelessness in the coming months and years.
The federal funding will help expand shelter capacity in four projects:
- A culturally specific emergency shelter for the City’s Native American population: The proposed shelter at Cedar and Franklin avenues is a partnership with the American Indian Community Development Corp. (AICDC) to purchase and renovate several buildings to accommodate a 24-hour, 50-bed emergency shelter with services. The project is funded by the City, County, State and philanthropic partners. It is expected to open in December.
- Women’s Shelter: A proposed 30-bed women’s shelter This project is a partnership with Hennepin County and Salvation Army as shelter operator. The County has committed operating funding and is looking for a permanent site. The City has committed ESG funding to complete necessary renovations for a new site. A temporary location will open this winter and a permanent site renovated in 2021.
- Exodus 2: A new development in the Elliot Park neighborhood that will serve medically frail homeless individuals leaving the hospital. An existing six-story building that previously operated as a nursing home will be turned into a 167-unit housing development with an additional six units of transitional housing for homeless veterans and 30 medical respite beds. It is expected to be operational by fall 2021. Catholic Charities will own and operate this property. It is funded by the City, County, State and private partners.
- 100 separate units in an “indoor village” for people currently experiencing unsheltered homelessness, funded by City, County, State and philanthropic partners. Planned opening end of December. This project will be located in the North Loop.
In addition to funding for these projects, the City and County issued a joint request for proposals (RFP) in July for community proposals for emergency shelter, street outreach, rapid re-housing and homelessness prevention. After thorough review by city and county staff, community partners and people with lived experience of homelessness, the City and County are providing funding for additional street outreach capacity, a new shelter diversion program, and funding to ensure that the existing emergency shelters can remain open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week in a COVID safe manner for the next two years.
Homeless Response System background
The Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness (OEH) leads the implementation of the City/County Plan to End Homelessness: Heading Home Hennepin, and subsequent plans to prevent and end homelessness for individuals, families, youth, and veterans. Mayor Jacob Frey and County Commissioner Angela Conley co-chair the executive committee of Hennepin County Continuum of Care board, which oversees the governance of the City and County homelessness response system.
Hennepin County oversees and administers $134 million in county, state and federal funds directly related to efforts to preventing and ending homelessness each year.
Hennepin County Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) works to decrease barriers to accessing health care by bringing critical services to the homeless population by locating clinics where people experiencing homelessness go for emergency shelter and other services. Health services and care coordination are provided in area shelters, drop in centers, and other agencies serving homeless individuals by a mobile, interdisciplinary HCH team.
The City budgets more than $1 million per year to directly support the City and County’s joint homelessness response system. Funds are used for emergency shelter improvements, rapid rehousing assistance and street outreach services.
The Minneapolis Police Department’s Homeless and Vulnerable Persons Initiative engages with people experiencing homelessness to understand their stories and situations and to focus on improving their health and safety. This initiative includes two full-time officers and support staff. The City provides about $350,000 annually to support this effort.
City Support for Affordable Housing
In addition to this direct operational support to the homeless response system, the City plays a critical role in funding the development and preservation of affordable housing, including permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. Since 2006, the City has provided more than $68 million to support the development of more than 900 units of supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness, including 117 new units in 2018 and 2019.
The City, in partnership with Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, Minneapolis Public Schools, Hennepin County, Pohlad Family Foundation and YMCA of the greater Twin Cities launched Stable Homes Stable Schools in April 2019. Through Stable Homes Stable Schools, families experiencing homelessness or housing instability receive rental assistance and support so their children can thrive in school. As of early 2020, 175 families including 500 children were housed through Stable Homes Stable Schools.
In partnership with tribal, community and government partners, the City opened a temporary Navigation Center to provide emergency shelter and on-site services to more than 175 people who had been residents of a large homeless encampment near Hiawatha and Cedar Avenues, referred to as the Wall of Forgotten Natives, during the summer of 2018. The Navigation Center closed at the end of May 2019, with about half of its residents finding permanent housing. The rate of housing placement was significantly higher than traditional shelters.
The City continues to focus on new and innovative interventions to address the increase in people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. In 2018, the City provided a $50,000 grant to American Indian Community Development Corporation to support a new low-barrier housing model for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness that brings new units online in only a few months and emphasizes low-barrier entry to housing and services. This year $250,000 in new City funds are available for similar projects.
The City has adopted zoning code changes to support persons experiencing homelessness. In 2015, the City adopted ordinances to allow for homeless shelters to be located throughout the City. In 2019, the City approved zoning code changes to allow for the development of intentional communities and cluster developments to provide more housing options for persons experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness. The code updates allow a configuration of small dwellings or rooming units and a common house on a lot.
On June 1, 2020, the City’s Renter Protections Ordinance - Fair Chance Access to Housing - went into effect, eliminating barriers to housing access for many residents.
The City made $3 million available for Emergency Housing Assistance for persons who have experienced a loss of income due to COVID in an effort to prevent evictions during this time of crisis. The County has made $15 million available for Emergency Housing Assistance through CARES Act funds. Applications for County housing assistance are currently being accepted.
More information about the City’s investments and policy work related to Affordable Housing:
Heading Home Hennepin
In 2006, the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness, entitled Heading Home Hennepin. This plan was developed by a commission of business and civic leaders, human service support agencies, advocates, and individuals who have experienced homelessness. It has since garnered community-wide support. Part of a burgeoning national initiative, Heading Home Hennepin was created to address the continued cycle of homelessness and change the cultural paradigm from managing it to ending it.
Residents can call 311 to ensure that the City Homeless outreach teams are connecting with the encampment and connecting residents to available services.
Hennepin County Waypoint provides a comprehensive list of resources for people experiencing homelessness or financial hardship.
Additional phone numbers for homeless street outreach support:
- Stephen’s Outreach, 612-879-7624
- Stephen’s Human Services, 612-874-0311
- Adult Shelter Connect (single adults), 612-248-2350
- Hennepin County Shelter Team (family shelter), 612-348-9410
- After-Hours Shelter Team (family shelter), 651-291-0211
Last updated Nov 16, 2020