MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) – Seven people experiencing homelessness filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis Monday alleging the city and Hennepin County violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs when it tore down encampments in the city’s parks this summer.
The lawsuit was filed by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU) against the city, county, the heads of local law enforcement and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.
In response, the Minneapolis City Attorney said the lawsuit, “incorrectly and unjustly asserts that plaintiffs have a constitutional right to exercise personal property and privacy interests on public lands to the exclusion of others’ interests in the use of those same lands.”
In a statement of its own, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board stood by its response to the temporary encampments, calling them “humane, lawful and measured.”
Hennepin County declined to comment on the pending litigation, but pointed to $12 million it spent in protective shelters this year and said $22 million more could be approved by the Hennepin County Board Tuesday to help implement more shelters for people experiencing homelessness.
“We are currently operating the largest and safest shelter system we have ever had in Hennepin County and continue to work with our partners to expand shelter, and protective housing options,” the county said in a statement.
In a release, the ACLU featured Plaintiff Patrick Berry, who said he lost his tent, mattress and sleeping bag when the city cleared an encampment.
“Clearing the encampments damages thousands of dollars in property – those tents are $100 apiece – and people’s important documents, family photos and medication get destroyed,” Berry said.
The lawsuit states: “These sweeps, conducted by Defendants, eject Plaintiffs from the public parks where they have been living, sometimes forcing them to move into crowded shelter spaces in spite of the severe public health danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Park Board said it has worked to support unsheltered people in its parks since the spring as required by Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19-related executive orders.
In its statement, the Park Board said it gave notice to all people before any attempt to remove them from encampments, asserting, “No person’s civil or human rights were violated.”
“The action by the plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit does absolutely nothing to ensure the safety of homeless people in the coming days when the first days of winter are upon us all,” the Park Board’s statement said.
Here’s a full statement from the Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader:
The City of Minneapolis has stepped up to partner with jurisdictional leaders, including the State and County, to support those experiencing homelessness amid the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. In keeping with that commitment, it is disappointing that institutions like the ACLU-MN and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid filed this legal action. Their action today incorrectly and unjustly asserts that plaintiffs have a constitutional right to exercise personal property and privacy interests on public lands to the exclusion of others’ interests in the use of those same lands, particularly in the face of mounting evidence that real threats to safety and health of plaintiffs and other members of the community continue to grow and persist by the continuance of remaining encamped in public parks and spaces. Our response today to this action is to request that rather than pursue such misguided legal action, the ACLU-MN and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid join the City, County and others throughout our metropolitan community in spending our resources and energy to stay focused on identifying and developing solutions that actually solve the problem of homelessness rather than attempting to place blame on those who are and have been engaged in that very important work.
In response to the lawsuit filed in federal district court today against Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) related to encampments, the MPRB is issuing the following statement:
The Board of Commissioners, the Superintendent, and the staff of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) have been supporting unsheltered people in parks since spring 2020 as required by Governor Tim Walz’s executive orders related to COVID and people experiencing homelessness. Since mid-July, after the elected Park Board enacted Resolution 2020-267 the MPRB staff have been implementing those Board directives consistent with Governor Walz’s executive orders. The MPRB has been humane, lawful, and measured in its responses to temporary encampments in the parks. All actions and efforts have been shared publicly and have been available online at www.minneapolisparks.org/encampments. Before any attempt to remove persons from an encampment, individuals experiencing homelessness in a park or those persons facilitating an encampment were given notice and offers of assistance to find proper and suitable shelter. No person’s civil or human rights were violated.
The lawsuit filed today by the Minnesota ACLU, Legal Aid and Zacah makes numerous allegations, many of which are simply not true. This summer several park encampments were removed due to size; documented crime, health, and safety incidents; or location in a school safety zone. In all cases, notice to vacate was provided to those living in the encampments, significant social service outreach took place, and transportation was offered to shelter locations. Since mid-July, park staff have communicated with and established permit and outreach processes for unsheltered people living in park encampments. Park outreach staff have been providing assistance in connecting unsheltered people with shelter spaces, which are currently available and have been routinely available since mid-July.
The MPRB has consistently acknowledged that parks do not provide dignified shelter. The MPRB has worked the last five months with state, county, city, and social service organizations to find safe shelter and for people experiencing homelessness in park encampments before cold weather settles in and to reduce the number of temporary encampments from over 40 to 10 today. Winter has now come to Minnesota and fires and propane are not allowed in Minneapolis parks. Camping in parks now is simply not humane or safe. Three people have already died at homeless encampments in Minneapolis this year. The action by the plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit does absolutely nothing to ensure the safety of homeless people in the coming days when the first days of winter are upon us all.
Here is the full statement from Hennepin County:
Hennepin County is aware of the lawsuit that has been filed in federal court regarding encampments in city parks. We will be responding pursuant to the court’s schedule, however we are unable to comment on active litigation.
We are currently operating the largest and safest shelter system we have ever had in Hennepin County and continue to work with our partners to expand shelter, and protective housing options.
Hennepin County has spent more than $12 million to date to provide protective housing at several area hotels for people experiencing homelessness who are most at risk of COVID-19 complications due to their age or underlying health conditions. Since March, we have provided protective and isolation housing to more than 1,400 people at area hotels. On any given day, more than 540 people are staying in county-run protective housing at area hotels. The unprecedented effort has allowed us to thus far avoid the devastating impacts COVID-19 has had on people experiencing homelessness in other major cities around the country.
This effort also allowed existing emergency shelters to deconcentrate by more than 50%, enabling them to provide additional space and resources to meet CDC guidelines on safe emergency shelter during the pandemic such as social distancing, cleaning and other operations improvements. He County has allocated a total of $5.7 million to make improvements to existing shelter sites so they can continue to meet CDC guidelines, including physical modifications and ensuring all shelters can operate 24/7, as they have done since early in the pandemic.
Tomorrow, the Hennepin County Board is expected to act on up to $22 million in funding for six additional sites to serve people experiencing homelessness. Three of these are planned hotel purchases that will replace rooms the county is currently leasing for protective and isolation housing. Two more will be new shelter locations and one is new low-barrier housing. The County previously allocated $3.5 million to create a new 50 bed shelter that will open next month. We are working with our nonprofit and agency partners at the city and state on these efforts and they will bring 200 new safe emergency shelter beds online before the end of the year
One person sleeping outside is too many. We need to make full use of the options available right now, even as we bring more online. Emergency shelters continue to see beds becomingly newly available each day with some going unused each night, and there are currently more than 200 beds at Board and Lodge programs currently vacant, which provide low-barrier housing people can access today. Hennepin County exercises a “shelter all” commitment for families, so even if capacity is reached, we would find accommodations for families with children.
Please share these resources in your coverage to help people access shelter:
Single adults: Call Adult Shelter Connect at 612-248-2350.
Families: Call the Hennepin County Family Shelter Team at 612-348-9410.