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Legalizing tent encampments to support unhoused residents

While they are not a substitute for permanent housing or longer-term housing solutions, tent encampments can provide temporary relief for many individuals and households who do not have access to such housing opportunities.

Homeless camp tents
MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh

Imagine you and your belongings being thrown out of the only place you currently call home. Imagine having 40 minutes of warning while the police hover over you as you collect your items.

This is what recently happened to the residents of a Near North Minneapolis tent encampment. This is not the first time we have heard this eviction story, and sadly will not be the last.

Tent encampments have become an inevitable fixture of city landscapes all over the world. While they are not a substitute for permanent housing or longer-term housing solutions, they can provide temporary relief for many individuals and households who do not have access to such housing opportunities. Municipalities need to collaborate with tent encampment leaders and advocates to support unhoused residents in our communities while also advancing housing as a human right. Unless there is enough permanent housing for everyone who is houseless, municipalities ought to start recognizing that living outside is inevitable for many.

The legalization of tent encampments can provide support and relief for some unhoused residents. In a recent MPR article responding to the protest of this most recent eviction at the tent encampment in Near North Minneapolis, one woman states that she has been evicted from three sites in the past week. She is not the only one with that story. Moving residents around does way more harm than good. By providing a home base, such as legalized or sanctioned encampments, local agencies and city leaders can effectively manage and respond in a humane manner. The cities only response at the moment is to ‘bulldoze’ encampments and evict residents as the encampments sprout up and become a nuisance to surrounding areas.

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The plan about how to approach these encampments is so impetuous, that it is not even mentioned in the Minneapolis 2040 plan. Minneapolis is playing a game of whack-a-mole with tent encampments, and it is as if unhoused residents’ lives are not on the line.

Beth Yudelman
In 2018, Wilder Research conducted the Minnesota Homeless Study and found that an estimated 19,600 Minnesotans experiences homelessness on any given night. These individuals experience homelessness in a variety of ways. When looking just at Hennepin County’s homeless population, 44% of children and 40% of adults, spent at least one night outside in the 30 days prior to the survey. In the Twin Cities, the number of individuals staying outside or temporarily doubled up increased by 93% when comparing the numbers to the previous study in 2015. Lack of affordable housing, shelter space, and services, contribute to these findings. However, some individuals choose tent encampments as their temporary solution because of the community and the privacy of staying in an encampment

Tent encampment residents in Minneapolis usually face eviction due to unsanitary conditions, sexual misconduct, drug/alcohol use, cold temperatures, and several other safety concerns. This was especially true for the Powderhorn Park Encampment that grew significantly after the murder of George Floyd and as the pandemic continued. There were temporary services on site that mitigated some of these issues for a while, but once those services dwindled out and there was not as much oversight, the situation at this encampment became dire. The Near North Encampment, while not nearly as large or problematic, has been around for 2 years with waves of individuals moving in and out and its final closure was due to sanitary conditions and safety concerns.

In some cities, tent encampments have become legalized. Missoula, Montana, for example, is home to a very successful legalized tent encampment the county calls ‘Temporary Safe Outdoor Space’. The NPR article describing this space states that even when shelters are at 50% capacity, some people still do not want to go. A Star Tribune article about the Near North Encampment in early 2022 explains why this might be the case. One of the residents told the Star Tribune that “she had bad experiences with overcrowding and disrespect from staff in emergency shelters.” This is far too common for many, especially for already marginalized individuals or individuals who experience significant mental health challenges. By creating a safe outdoor space, equipped with individual tents, bathroom facilities, outreach workers, wellness checks and screenings, community gardens, and more, legalized tent encampments can become an adequate alternative to any other temporary housing. Of course, this is one of many band-aid solutions for lack of permanent and affordable housing, but enough is enough with these evictions.

The data shows that individuals inevitably live outdoors either by choice or by force. This is the sad reality for many because our government has not prioritized making housing a human right. Legalizing tent encampments and creating safe outdoor spaces can support those who are unhoused while our society decides whether we are going to invest in solving the affordable housing crisis.

Beth Yudelman is a first-year Master of Urban Planning student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs concentrating on Housing and Community Development. She lives in St. Paul.