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Large Minneapolis Homeless Encampment Concerns Officials

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Minneapolis, a growing crisis, once largely in the shadows, has exploded into view. Hundreds of homeless people have set up tents in dozens of city parks. That is after elected officials there made the rare move of legalizing camping. In the last month, one encampment has become one of the nation's biggest with more than 500 tents. Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio reports.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: Vaughn Yaints has been without a permanent address for most of his 62 years. He suffers from chronic health problems, but that hasn't stopped him from taking on a leadership role here at Powderhorn Park. Among his daily tasks at this campsite south of downtown Minneapolis is to help de-escalate arguments.

VAUGHN YAINTS: We approach them and tell them, hey, I'll tell you what? If you keep on doing it, you're out of here because your attitude will affect somebody else's attitude.

SEPIC: Yaints, who has diabetes and a history of heart trouble, says his Social Security check has never been enough to pay rent anywhere in the area, so he'd stay in shelters or pitch his tent wherever he could. After police killed George Floyd in late May near here, Yaints and about 200 others sought refuge from the unrest in a makeshift hotel shelter run by volunteers. But the building's owner kicked everyone out after a resident overdosed. The volunteers then shuttled residents to this park. Authorities first ordered everyone to vacate. But then last month, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted to allow camping in all city parks.

While the move is not unprecedented, it is unusual. There are few services provided beyond portable toilets and showers. Last week, park officials were set to vote on a plan to scale things back and require everyone to leave by September. But they tabled the measure. Commissioner AK Hassan, who grew up in a camp as a Somali refugee, says until a solution is found, he won't vote to evict anyone.

AK HASSAN: We can't just move around our unhoused and homeless people who stay in our parks who feel safe here.

SEPIC: But for many people, the camp is not safe. Police say two girls and a woman have been sexually assaulted. Angelina Roslik lives across the street and is exasperated by the encampment. Over a late-night soundscape of illegal fireworks, the 40-year-old says cars come and go at all hours on her dead-end street, bringing drug dealers and people looking to pay for sex.

ANGELINA ROSLIK: It feels like something really bad is about to happen every second of the day. And you don't know what it is. And so every explosion, whether it's a firework or a gunshot or someone screaming or whatever, you just - I feel chest pain constantly now.

SEPIC: David Hewitt, who leads Hennepin County's Office to End Homelessness, says the immediate plan is to send social workers to the homeless one tent at a time and try to get them to move into shelters, then permanent homes. But he says COVID-19 has already pushed the system to its limits.

DAVID HEWITT: The capacity of our provider community and ourselves to stand up huge new programs is extremely constrained.

SEPIC: Eric Tars at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty says encampments have grown exponentially across the country since the last recession. He fears the fallout after temporary eviction bans end.

ERIC TARS: If you think, you know, the 500 tents in one park is bad now, you know, I think we have something much, much worse on the near horizon.

SEPIC: Tars says he's hopeful that these highly visible signs of the homelessness crisis will spur policymakers at all levels to work to address what he says is the root of the problem - the widening gap between the money people earn and the rent needed for a place to live. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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