Camping out in Minneapolis

Heading downtown Minneapolis several times a week, we watched a so-called homeless encampment grow on a small strip of land along Hiawatha Avenue just before it funnels traffic downtown onto Seventh Street. A tribute to the broken-windows theory of policing, the encampment grew up virtually overnight. Bordering a subsidized Native American housing complex, residents of the encampment reflect the Indian tilt of their neighbors. At one point we saw teepees join the tents.

As the encampment turned into a shithole, municipal authorities jumped to it. They moved four port-o-potties onto a fringe of the strip. That didn’t do anything to clean up the detritus of addiction that littered the grounds. Between September and November four residents of the encampment died of overdoses. The Star Tribune quoted the father of one of the deceased: “It’s a drug house without walls and everyone knows it.” Yet the encampment continued to grow, spilling over the small strip of land on which it originated. It was something like an attractive nuisance.

Long after the encampment had become a disgusting eyesore and menace to public health, the authorities came up with a creative solution of a sort. They installed a green mesh screen to render the encampment less visible to passing traffic.

As the weather has turned toward winter, the encampment has become a fire hazard. Chris Serres reports in the Star Tribune: “Two large fires have broken out at the camp in the past two weeks, destroying about two dozen tents. In both cases, there were reports of propane cylinders used to heat tents exploding, though no one has been seriously hurt.”

Serres quoted resident Donald Harvey, who lost his worldly possessions when his tent went up in flames on Friday: “This whole camp is like a matchbox.” Not to worry. That green mesh covering is probably fire retardant.

Municipal authorities had vowed to move campers to new quarters by the end of September. September came and went while the encampment continued to grow. Better late than never, the promised move is now beginning to happen. There is no shortage of social service providers or public funds to support the impoverished in Minnesota. Indeed, many Minnesota tribes are rolling in casino cash. Has anyone asked them to pitch in or help out?

Whatever, a shortage of resources is not the problem here. The problem is the powers that be in Minneapolis. As Serres notes: “From the beginning, Minneapolis city and Indian leaders made a strategic decision to embrace the encampment as part of a wider effort to combat homelessness, and to avoid punitive measures that would only drive people further into the shadows.”

Read Serres’s most recent Star Tribune story. He is a relentless advocate of the authorities’ toleration of the encampment, as are his colleagues at MinnPost (here, for example). As always seems to be the case, the Star Tribune is part of the problem.

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