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Hennepin County looks to address homeless camps along Midtown Greenway

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

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. 

“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.

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. 

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.”

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by John Richard on 09/24/2019 - 03:28 pm.

    Soren Jensen says he does not see an increase in crime. Many of the people living in neighborhoods near the east end of the Greenway have had a very different experience.

    The Midtown and East Phillips neighborhoods of Minneapolis have been plagued this summer with open drug use, prostitution (sometimes performed in tents pitched on both public and private property) vandalism, and public urination and defecation.. At a meeting called by an immigrants rights group last Saturday, about 40 Latino neighbors reported their lives disrupted by grave concerns for their families health and safety. One woman reported finding human excrement in her front yard on a daily basis. Another neighbor from East Phillips said he cannot find a PCA’s for his child, as the agencies are reluctant to send staff to his address for reasons of street safety.

    Dirty needles littering streets is not an issue to be poo-pooed away as an aesthetic concern of wealthy renters .. used needles pose a serious health hazard to children who walk through streets strewn with needles on a daily basis. The majority of these children low income, non-white immigrant children.

    My neighbors and I support efforts to help the homeless. At the same time we are tired of advocates for the homeless dismissing serious concerns regarding safety and public health caused by the refusal to recognize that drug addiction and prostitution have huge negative impacts for neighborhoods. Calls for help when children, differently-abled people and other feel threatened by adults exhibiting extreme behavioral issues and face serious potential health hazards are routinely dismissed as anti-homeless prejudice.

    These conditions would not be tolerated in predominately white and higher income neighborhoods. The tolerance of this in majority non-white neighborhoods while preventing the spread of these issues to white majority neighborhood is systemic racism, pure an simple.

    My neighbors and I are organizing, We have a related story to tell, and plan to do it loudly and clearly.

    • Submitted by joe olson on 10/01/2019 - 06:54 am.

      I live next to the Greenway near 35W and Lake St.

      I cannot open my bedroom windows at night because of homeless riding bikes and talking and yelling at two in the morning!

      Nice /ride bikes are now signs of a homeless person.

      Fortunately winter is here so we will get relief.

      I have seen eviction signs on homeless camping sites posted for the first time a week ago.

      can you imagine homeless tent sites along lake of the isles?

      Railway authority needs to transfer geenway to someone who can manage the site.

    • Submitted by Pete Wagner on 05/23/2020 - 09:50 pm.

      Tents are moving in to areas previously not populated by them, in May of 2020.
      1. Property tax strike. Organize several thousand homeowners along the greenway to refuse to pay property taxes until this is solved to our satisfaction–meaning perhaps that a certain percentage of our tax payments will go directly to helping provide services to the homeless so they no longer need to camp on the greenway. Instead of all the fancy stuff for the rich fat tire bikers, etc., where it has already been going with things like the greenway itself. We liked living here better before the greenway, we used to walk along the railroad tracks for years before they ruined it with all that pavement. It really WAS green, before that.
      2. While this is being worked out, provide moving vans to transport and relocate the campers to the front lawns of the homes of the county supervisors and county adminstrator. There these poor folks will have much nicer neighborhoods to live in, anyway.

  2. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 09/24/2019 - 04:48 pm.

    What I see the most of is broken glass. It is everywhere. At least a dozen times this summer commuting I have been within 100ft of a bottle being thrown on to the Greenway. The bottles thrown right after I went by the Sheridan steps last week are still all over the path. The big pieces I picked up. The second thing I see the most is drinking at all times of the day and much more than in past years. I love the Greenway and now it just makes me sad!

  3. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 09/24/2019 - 05:00 pm.

    This really says it all:

    “Living is responsibilities; being held accountable — surviving is, I can do what I want to do.”

  4. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 09/24/2019 - 07:46 pm.

    If the city keeps allowing people to camp wherever these please, all of the problems associated with this will only get worse. Why wouldn’t they keep doing it, they know at the end of summer they will get a warm place to live provided by the city. I agree with one of the commenters above — do you think this would be tolerated in Kenwood?
    I have just about given up on the people governing the city of Minneapolis. If they bend any farther to the left the city is going to fall off of the planet. I’m also disappointed that minnpost writes stories like this without providing alternative views. The last survey you did, you asked if stories were presented without leaning left or right. I said yes, but now I’m changing my mind. And I am a monthly contributor.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 09/25/2019 - 11:04 am.

      I would suggest including the county on this issue. With property taxes again going up(because they want to keep trying new things), one has to ask what programs show evidence of success and what programs are spinning wheels, costing money and with little results. The city and county should be providing an exact accounting of money spent. So often programs for those without shelter fail to take into account, some struggle with rules, some with mental health and chemical health are not wanting treatment and it takes time to build trust. Add to it, no you can’t just place people on holds–the standard in this state is very high to mandate treatment. Throw in wages not keeping up with high costs and people not wanting to give up income to pay for the shelter system(if on economic assistance, you have to give over to the county much of your check to help pay for shelter, food). My guess is if the camps were outside of city hall or the government center, no they would not be tolerated.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 09/25/2019 - 04:10 pm.

      It seems like a pretty factual piece to me, describing the situation and how public and non-profit institutions are acting with respect to it. What would an “alternative view” be?

      Human society has always had a portion of folks who can’t make a go of it within the parameters of the particular society, for reasons that are their fault, or not, or some of both. In more communal societies maybe they’re taken care of by everyone. In less communal societies they sleep under bridges until the police drive them off. It’s a difficult issue. How do you think it should be approached?

      • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 09/26/2019 - 09:30 am.

        My opinion is if anyone receives services provided by the city/county or state they should not be allowed to shoot up drugs. The different agencies have programs to help addicts. Many nonprofits have repeatedly reached out to help those in need. And many of those in need refuse any and all help.
        Last year the city allowed rampant drug use in the shelter, and in my opinion that was unconscionable. There are many people who are homeless for circumstances outside of their control. For those people, I think the government should help. Be it shelter, job training, meals and other services. For the drug addicts, I think they made their choice and they should not get anything until they are willing to get help with their addiction.
        So to be very honest, if those individuals continue to inject drugs, prostitute themselves to buy drugs and leave their needles on public and private property they are on their own. And they do not have a right to camp anywhere.

  5. Submitted by Peter Zeftel on 09/25/2019 - 05:40 pm.

    I wonder why the article is titled “Hennepin looks to address homeless encampments”. The major answer seems to be sweeps to move homeless people somewhere else- not providing more affordable housing.

    When will Hennepin county and Minneapolis actually start building the thousands of units of affordable housing needed to actually provide needed places to live? Luxury units are going up like hotcakes but where are the new low income units?

    If there is no place for people to go live, yes people will go outside literally and live anywhere they can find. At least let the city and county set up another navigation center like last winter as another temporary measure.

    Don’t hold your breath for any new units of affordable housing until large numbers of people freeze to death.

    • Submitted by Payton Powell on 09/26/2019 - 10:02 am.

      The problem is that there is no where to put new affordable housing, at least no where that people find that’s desirable. The reason why 2040 was pitched, at least to my understanding, was that it would help alleviate the housing crisis (somehow, it was never explained fully) and that it would provide low income folks more places to live (somehow). However, regardless of how 2040 takes shape it is ultimately doomed to fail for a number of reasons, but primarily economics.

      As we see in a number of recent community meetings middle-class people are largely opposed to rental properties popping up in the middle of neighborhoods, especially ones that cater to low-income residents. Rightfully so. These properties drive down value, are associated with all the problems that come with rental properties (especially affordable housing), and ultimately threaten the very reason that these residents live where they do. As housing activists continue to push for mixed housing in the cities wealthier neighborhoods so that low-income people have the same access to resources and community services that middle-class residents have built up for themselves they threaten the existence of those very resources.

      Why aren’t activists pushing for housing to go up where land is cheaper and where they are less likely to face community protests, like North Minneapolis? Because even though that would be a sound solution it would defeat their purpose. However, the more they try and force things the more they will fail because they forget that the middle-class hold significant power both politically and economically. The middle-class can move whenever a neighborhood becomes undesirable, the moment they see their property values decline (therefore jeopardizing a life long investment) they will sell and move to more desirable areas. That’s why you had white flight in the mid-twentieth centuries and it will happen again if things are forced.

      The only way forward, that I see, is to create affordable housing where you can regardless of location. To create incentives for people to help provide for the homeless (since they clearly won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart) and get as much non-profit, non-governmental help as possible for administration and implementation.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/26/2019 - 01:17 pm.

      The construction of luxury or market rate housing is not the impediment to building affordable housing. Because housing costs are driven by a lack of housing overall, adding housing that many cannot afford is still a solution to the problem.

    • Submitted by Nicole LaFavor-Bostwick on 10/08/2019 - 09:11 am.

      Peter I highly agree with your statement. If people cannot afford to live in new luxury buildings they will definitely find anywhere to go and rest their head. The county should DEFINITELY be thinking and doing more affordable apartment units for people who can’t afford these big Luxury Apartments. I myself am 26 and living with my sister because I can’t afford it and it is really hard because I wouldn’t have anywhere to go if it wasn’t for her and luckily I’m fortunate enough but Hennepin County needs to get it together because it’s real and it’s happening and if not there’s just going to be thousand more homeless every year.

      • Submitted by Nicole LaFavor-Bostwick on 10/08/2019 - 09:13 am.

        Some of these people actually need help and I probably willing to get it some maybe users but in all reality they’re still people and they deserve a chance.

  6. Submitted by Payton Powell on 09/26/2019 - 10:10 am.

    As long as homelessness is tucked out of the way and doesn’t interfere with people’s lives people will continue to ignore it and rely on government to magically make it disappear. The problem with that, of course, is government moves slower than a snail when it comes to finding and implementing solutions. The Hiawatha encampment was only blocks away from the wealthy (and liberal) Seward, Cooper, and Longfellow neighborhoods, if the right organization had been given a few hundred dollars from each of those supposedly progressive households the problem would have ended a lot sooner. Unfortunately, progressives rely on government to fix things when a third party could easily provide things much faster, probably at lower cost, and without nearly as much red tape.

    Minneapolis is an incredibly wealthy city, and it will only get wealthier, but if it continues to rely on government to solve it’s poverty and homelessness problems it will ultimately just become the Midwest version of Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, or Los Angeles, where the snails pace and ambivalence of government thwarts any progress to solving their massive homelessness problems. If the supposed progressive liberal citizens of Minneapolis truly did care they would take matters into their own hands and start solving this issue themselves without the bureaucratic tangle of government.

  7. Submitted by John Richard on 09/26/2019 - 11:10 am.

    Building affordable housing is essential, We are reaching a crisis point in housing in the Twin Cities. Rental costs are rising faster than wages.

    It is important to remember that we cannot classify all people experiencing homelessness together. Homelessness affects people of all ages and backgrounds. The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness need affordable housing and nothing more. Organizations such as St Stephen’s Services (of which I am long term financial supporter) do amazing work helping these families find housing.

    This is not the case for many (I’d venture most) of the people camping on the Greenway. It is not realistic to expect people with serious mental illness, long term drug and alcohol addiction, or people involved in prostitution (which is often akin to enslavement) to be placed in traditional housing units and be able to maintain their housing status. These people have complex needs for supportive housing resources.

    At a recent community meeting, a police officer who works directly with people camping out (a person with both a keen sense of compassion for the people living on the streets, and a strong sense of the seriousness of the problems many of these people cause for other neighbors) told us that many people living in tents openly refuse offers for help in finding housing, knowing that anywhere they could be housed would not allow them to continue using drugs or alcohol.

    I have no idea what can be done for people in this situation, except to make sure their activities minimize the impact on the community at large .. and I do not pretend to know what that would look like.

    We may have to confront some very uncomfortable realities, such as there are people who will never give up heroin, and ask ourselves how to provide safe options for them while developing a zero tolerance policy regarding the impact of their behaviors on low income neighborhoods.

  8. Submitted by joe olson on 10/01/2019 - 07:05 am.

    I walk from 5th Ave to Hiawatha Ave on the Greenway daily.

    Very few garbage cans on the Greenway.

    Infrequent trash pickup.

    Maybe we need a few hundred camp sites along the greenway.. Either fence the greenway tent area off or occupy it with law abiding campers?

    You would need a permit to camp and greenway rangers would be maintaining their camp sites…

  9. Submitted by jim hughes on 10/21/2019 - 05:27 pm.

    A month later – nothing has changed.

    I cycle the Greenway often, and what I’m seeing is its gradual but steady surrender. I sure wouldn’t ride through there after dark.

    As always, officeholders and city/county employees talk about these transients “getting the help they need”, but the resources that would be required don’t exist and are hard to even imagine.

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