A young man gasped for breath in the park where he slept.
His heart was failing him.
And not just his heart.
There are more than a thousand tents like his in Minneapolis right now.
Someone should do something, we mutter as we walk past the tents in the park and the people displaced by pandemic, recession and civil unrest.
Government agencies, nonprofits and activists are trying — sometimes collaborating, sometimes clashing — as they respond to a crisis bigger than any of them.
“For the past two months, I have been horrified, as every Minnesotan should be, at the crisis of unsheltered homelessness,” said Dr. Bilal Murad, a cardiologist and founder of the nonprofit homeless outreach ZACAH. “Our fundamental role in life is to care for each other. There is no other greater objective in life.”
Murad visited the encampments, offering health care. He lined up a colleague to treat the young man in congestive heart failure.
In another tent in the sprawling Powderhorn Park encampment, he met a woman battling colon cancer. She had a colostomy bag she needed to change every few days. She hadn’t been able to change it in four weeks.
The doctor found another specialist to help her and moved on to the next health care crisis in the park, then the next. Broken bones, eye injuries, infected wounds.
Then Minneapolis cleared the overcrowded park of hundreds of tents and people. Murad has no idea where the people he tried to help are now.
In another park on the other side of town, Donald Ryan, a social worker who leads Hennepin County’s effort to shelter the unsheltered, rested on a rock and studied a cluster of tents near the tennis court.
In March, with the pandemic looming, the nine social workers in his office whisked hundreds of frail and elderly people out of homeless shelters and into hotel rooms. The county has spent more than $7 million on hotel rooms for between 650 and 700 people since then.
In May, as Minneapolis and St. Paul burned, there was a massive, multiagency effort to evacuate residents of nearby homeless encampments into suburban hotels, far from the unrest surrounding the George Floyd protests, Ryan said.
“We have made a commitment to work to house all of those folks, so they don’t go back to a shelter or encampments,” he said. Meanwhile, the county’s homeless access team works out of the hotels, trying to arrange health care, mental health services and other support for the residents.
Hennepin County, he said, has found permanent housing for 1,169 people since January. But affordable housing is scarce and nobody knows how many more Minnesotans could lose their homes next month if the state’s emergency eviction ban expires.
Volunteers in the parks have been hurt and enraged by government decisions to clear encampments that get too big, set up too close to schools or draw too many complaints about crime and violence. In the middle of a pandemic, they say, evicting someone from the one place they’ve found refuge seems cruel and unsafe.
But for some who’ve worked with at-risk populations for years, this summer’s focus on large park encampments, staffed by caring volunteers with piles of donations, creates its own sort of risk.
Ryan watched one elderly man, who had been moved from a shelter to a hotel, leave the county program to move to a “sanctuary hotel” near Lake Street. Someone had promised him a permanent place to live and a job. Two weeks later, the hotel evicted everyone and there were no rooms left in the county program.
The volunteer movement working to turn metro parks into sanctuaries for people with nowhere else to turn “has a lot of really well-intentioned people,” Ryan said.
“Those folks, they have tried really hard,” he said. “They just don’t have the experience and the resources.”
The people working to help the people in the park may not agree on tactics and goals. But they’re all working to help the people in the park.
People like Nadine Little, who was arrested as she tried to stop the park police from clearing her belongings from Powderhorn. Agencies and nonprofits worked for days to help residents pack up and move, but some refused to go, unwilling to leave the home they’d made for themselves in the park.
“It hurts my heart to have to live like this,” Little said as she prepared for her court date last week.
Rodney Williams lies in his tent at night and listens to passing drivers who maliciously rev their engines to scare the people sleeping in Wirth Park.
“A public park is supposed to be public,” he said, standing in front of a line of ruined tents activists strung outside the Minneapolis park superintendent’s home last week.
Sleeping in the park is one of the perks of the superintendent’s job, although the current park leader’s family does it in a historic, squirrel-infested mansion on parkland near Lake Harriet.
“He thinks he’s doing his job. How? By hurting someone else,” said Williams, who works as a security volunteer in his park community. “I don’t want my kids to worry about the tent getting knocked over.”
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