The University of Minnesota is beginning research looking at the health impacts of homeless encampment closures, something Minneapolis has had many of over the past years.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz issued an emergency executive order protecting encampments from disbandment or sweeps by state or local governments. With that allowance, the number of encampments in Minneapolis grew. But the governor’s order ended in July 2021, and city entities cleared several encampments.
Advocates including Southside Harm Reduction Services brought the issue of encampment closings to M. Kumi Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Can’t you prove that this is damaging health?’ And I realized that one would need data to do so and that data didn’t really exist in any one place,” Smith said.
Smith’s community partners expressed to her the way sweeps can often be detrimental to survival and health. She wants to see if that is reflected in the data.
“Participants are telling us how sweeps disrupt their access to naloxone (a drug to reverse an overdose), their access to their sort of social support network, so people around them who could help them out if they overdose; their access to trusted sources of drugs that they know are safe,” Smith said.
Smith, along with a core team of three others, will be making a database to track where and when the sweeps are happening and how they connect with health outcomes. The group will first look at the connection between encampment closures to fatal and non-fatal opioid overdoses and may expand to other health measures from there.
Rise in homelessness
Between 2015 and 2018 homelessness in Minnesota increased by 10%, according to a Wilder Foundation study. During that same time span, there was a 62% increase in the number of people not staying in a formal shelter setting, which was more pronounced in the Twin Cities metro than in greater Minnesota.
Research has shown that adults experiencing homelessness have high rates of chronic physical health conditions, but no research has been done yet in the Twin Cities to look at the role encampments play in sustaining a community’s health, and how their closure could impact health outcomes.
Smith said her team’s study will focus on the Twin Cities metro and centralize data that various organizations collect, gathering data on where encampments are and where closures occur, how much notice is given to residents, who is leading the sweep, what sorts of resources are offered to residents after a sweep happens and whether law enforcement is present at the time of clearing.
Overdose data from the Minnesota Department of Health, which tracks fatal and nonfatal overdoses, will also be critical to the study, Smith said.
“That allows us to calculate down to a precinct level the amount of overdoses that are happening at any given time. If we know the time and place of these sweeps, then we also know the time and space of overdose rates that are happening at the group level,” she said. “You could almost think of it as spots around the map that are lighting up after each sweep, and if they’re happening in the same place, you might suspect that that’s potentially because there’s a causal relationship there.”
Since 2020 there’s been a 27% decrease in overall unsheltered homeless, according to Hennepin County’s 2023 Point in Time Count, an annual snapshot of people experiencing homelessness. But the majority of unhoused populations in the county aren’t residing in encampments, according to Erin Wixten, a principal planning analyst with the county’s Office to End Homelessness.
“The vast majority of unsheltered homelessness is not in an encampment. It’s on the transit, it’s in vehicles, squatting in a house, sleeping in abandoned sheds, sleeping in the park,” Wixsten said.
In 2020, Hennepin County had around 642 unsheltered individuals, meaning those experiencing homelessness who were not in shelter or transitional housing. That number lowered to 487 in 2022 and 469 according to the latest numbers for 2023.
In 2020 encampments in Minneapolis grew significantly in size and quantity. The city defines “encampment” as camp cars, house trailers, automobiles, tents or other structures that are placed or parked on public or private streets or premises and used as a shelter or enclosure of a person for purposes of living inside it.
In June of that year, the superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Al Bangoura, said there were 102 known encampments around the city, with two locations having more than 50 tents each. In July, the city reported there were 35 known encampments on park board property, one of which was Powderhorn Park, having over 400 tents.
Following a crime and safety report later that month, the city reported that violent crime in the parks had increased 77% from looking at the same period from 2019 to 2020. As a result, the city issued notifications to vacate those in Powderhorn Park.
In August and September 2020, the city gave notices to vacate some encampments of Peavey, Elliott and Kenwood parks, citing significant crime and safety incidents.
What goes into the decision to close an encampment?
According to the city, the decision to close an encampment is based upon an objective review of encampment conditions, where the Homelessness Response Team looks at four factors: neighborhood impact, health impact, safety impact and external impact. These combined factors look at things like the number of 911 or 311 calls, the geographic size, hygiene of the location, presence of pregnant people, weather conditions, drug use, violence and accounts from neighbors and people in the area.
Maintaining encampments also costs the city money. Individual encampments require city services costing upward of $50,000 each annually.
When the decision to close the encampment has been made, the city is supposed to post an initial notice of trespass, notice to vacate and notice of the closure at least 72 hours before the closure. But that notice, which can be helpful for finding alternate shelter, is not always required under certain circumstances. Closing an encampment can range between $40,000 to $265,000, according to a report from the city.
Minneapolis, Hennepin County and various service providers will visit an encampment site prior to the closure to do outreach and connect people with resources and services, including shelter. But housing advocates say shelters don’t have enough space and not all shelters work with the lifestyle needs of those formerly residing in encampments.
Smith and the researchers will work over the next two years to figure out how encampment closures can be tracked and looked at in relation to opioid overdoses. She expects to have one year of data and findings completed by 2025.