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Hennepin County looks to address homeless camps along Midtown Greenway

A year after a massive encampment formed at the intersection of Franklin and Hiawatha avenues in Minneapolis, the Greenway community has become one of the most conspicuous signs of homelessness in the Twin Cities. 

A growing number of people have pitched tents or built makeshift camps on either side of the path.
A growing number of people have pitched tents or built makeshift camps on either side of the path.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

Samantha Mattson has a new favorite spot for sleeping outdoors in Minneapolis: the Midtown Greenway, the former railroad corridor that’s become one of the city’s most heavily trafficked bicycle-pedestrian paths. 

About a month ago, she started camping underneath its street bridges and made friendships with other homeless people she met along the trail — camaraderie that she says makes her feel safer than spending nights alone in alleyways or storefronts.

“It’s a family. … It’s an unspoken understanding; you take care of each other,” she said. “When you’re homeless, you figure out which people you tolerate and which people you don’t tolerate.”

Mattson is far from the only homeless person to have found a place along Greenway this summer. A growing number of people have pitched tents or built makeshift camps on either side of the path, outreach workers and Hennepin County leaders say. A year after a massive homeless encampment formed in south Minneapolis along Hiawatha Avenue, the Greenway community has become one of the most conspicuous signs of homelessness in the Twin Cities. 

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“People are struggling out there,” said Soren Jensen, who leads the Midtown Greenway Coalition.

Local government officials and homelessness nonprofits are now concerned about the site’s rising popularity — worried about the public safety and health risks that come with a high concentration of homeless people living in one area. On Tuesday, a Minneapolis City Council committee is set to approve a $75,000 funding agreement with Hennepin County and St. Stephens, a homelessness prevention nonprofit, to ramp up efforts to help those living along the Greenway get permanent homes or treatment services. 

“We are out there making sure people survive,” said St. Stephens’ John Tribbett, who leads a team of outreach workers. “The ultimate goal is to get people into permanent housing.”

Symptom of housing crisis

For people without homes, good sleeping spots are those that are relatively discreet and provide a sense of safety and stability, Tribbett said, and sleeping outside in a group often beats sleeping outside alone. With its bridges, embankments and thick brush, the 5.7-mile Greenway offers prime locations for homeless people looking for shelter.

Experts say the pathway’s growing homeless population is a symptom of the region’s widening housing and income disparities, which disproportionately impact households of color and Native Americans in Minneapolis. Most new apartments in Twin Cities are unaffordable for almost half of the population, according to Census data and the Family Housing Fund, a Minneapolis-based housing nonprofit, and the pace of housing development for all income levels is moving too slowly to keep up with population growth.

With its myriad of bridges, embankments and thick brush, the 5.7-mile Greenway offers prime locations for homeless people looking for shelter.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
With its myriad of bridges, embankments and thick brush, the 5.7-mile Greenway offers prime locations for homeless people looking for shelter.
“We have, in the last couple years, been seeing an increase in single adults experiencing unsheltered homelessness generally, and certainly the Greenway is one of the locations where this has been noticeable,” said David Hewitt, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness. “With the housing market as it is, the options that we would like to be able to offer simply don’t exist for the scale that we need them right now.”

The growing trend among people sleeping outdoors is not isolated to the Twin Cities metro. According to a one-night statewide count of homeless people last year, the number of people sleeping outdoors in Minnesota grew by more than 60 percent since 2015, totalling almost 2,700 people.

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St. Stephens has a contract with the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, which owns the Greenway, to do on-the-ground interviews with homeless people to see what they need in terms of assistance and pass out emergency supplies. One woman living along the Greenway worked with outreach workers over three years to eventually find housing, where she’s been living for the past six months, Hewitt said.

With the growing demand, Tribbett said he wants to expand his outreach team from six to 10 people so they can have a stronger presence along the trail, as well as other hotspots for homelessness countywide. Once approved, the new funding agreement, which is a Hennepin County grant that the city of Minneapolis is administering because of its relationship with St. Stephens, will help reach that goal, he said, though project leaders have not ironed out the specifics. 

Success in helping moving people to permanent housing is only possible if the county maintains a compassionate approach to helping people along the trail, said Kyle Mianulli, a spokesman for the county’s public works department, though the department says it has a low tolerance for illegal camping.

The rail authority has a firm ban on encampments along the Greenway and clears tent sites as they form. Outreach or maintenance workers give residents one week to pack their belongings and vacate before the sweeps, as well as try to protect important documents, such as birth certificates and passports, from getting thrown away, Mianulli said. 

Hewitt said the cleanup practice is part of a coordinated response plan that law-enforcement officers, government leaders and outreach workers formed earlier this year. “People in unsheltered homelessness are extremely vulnerable and need to be treated with dignity and respect in accordance to their rights,” he said. “Also recognizing that the encampments themselves pose health and safety risks, especially for people staying within in them and do not provide a dignified form of shelter.”

How the Franklin-Hiawatha camp changed government’s response to homelessness

The new approach to addressing homelessness along the trail comes roughly one year after more than 300 people formed an encampment along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis

Eventually, the camp’s residents were forced to move into a temporary navigation center where they could sleep in heated tents and receive individualized help from case workers. In the end, just over half of the navigation center’s residents actually found stable housing or treatment, while the remaining portion left for jail, were kicked out by the center’s supervisors for inappropriate behavior, or found somewhere new to sleep outside. 

The whole ordeal has changed how government agencies and nonprofits think about homelessness in the Twin Cities. Tribbett said he’s noticed a new fear among community leaders and residents — that if they don’t immediately clear tents anywhere in the city, a large encampment could form again. 

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Landowners are clearing their yards of tents, and some neighbors are calling St. Stephens to report homeless people in an attempt to get them to leave, he said. “It’s this big game of displacement — people being pushed out of this location to that location,” Tribbett said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had people along the Greenway in newer buildings say they have too high cost of rent — they shouldn’t have to see people homeless outside.”

vacate notice
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Outreach or maintenance workers give residents one week to pack their belongings and vacate before sweeps, as well as try to protect important documents, such as birth certificates and passports, from getting thrown away.
Because of the constant migrating, it’s unclear how many people consider the corridor home, he said. The moving also makes it harder for his team to keep in touch with people for whom they’re trying to find permanent housing. 

But despite the increase in the homeless population along the Greenway, Jensen and county leaders say they have not seen an uptick in crime; the corridor remains a relatively safe place. “What you do see is more trash there’s certainly more needles,” Jensen said.

Underneath the 18th Avenue bridge Monday afternoon, Mattson and a couple of her friends reveled in the day’s good weather by playing R&B music on her smartphone and smoking cigarettes. Her friends said the trail is a prime spot for spending time outside and finding people you know. 

“For me, it’s easier to survive than it is to live,” Mattson said of her rationale to sleep outside. “Living is responsibilities; being held accountable surviving is, I can do what I want to do.”