MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (CN) — A group of unhoused people in Minneapolis are suing the city and several officials in an effort to stop police from evicting them from burgeoning encampments in city parks.
Five individual plaintiffs and a nonprofit focused on preventing homelessness in the city filed a class action complaint in federal court Monday, arguing that police sweeps of encampments in city parks violated their rights to privacy and property under the Fourth Amendment and to due process under the 14th Amendment.
The plaintiffs, represented by attorneys with the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and ACLU of Minnesota, claim that city officials give inadequate or no notice of their plans to evict encampments of hundreds with pepper spray, tear gas and bulldozers, and residents of the encampments often have no safe place to go.
Homelessness has been a longstanding issue in Minneapolis, and officials warned in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic that the virus would make the situation of homeless people there worse.
Riots in the city following the May 25 death of George Floyd also exacerbated the situation as hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed. During the unrest, 200 displaced residents occupied a disused hotel near the riots’ epicenter on Lake Street. Mounting damages and safety concerns pushed the hotel’s owner to evict them on June 9.
Many of the city’s homeless have been concentrated in a collection of encampments in city parks. The city estimates that about 100 camps exist across the park system, most small. As of early in October, 13 smaller encampments have been permitted by the city’s park board.
The largest of the early encampments emerged in Powderhorn Park, blocks from where Floyd died. That swelled to a size of hundreds with the intermittent and conditional blessing of the park board, but park police ultimately evicted its residents and demolished the encampment with bulldozers in August. Similar evictions have occurred in other parks across the city. In at least one case, the complaint states, residents were given a notice saying they had 72 hours to vacate only for officers and bulldozers to arrive 24 hours later.
One resident of the Powderhorn encampment, Emmett Williams, said that when that encampment was evicted he and his fiancée were taken by bus to another park, where they have lived ever since. Several of their possessions were taken or destroyed, according to the complaint.
“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,” plaintiff Patrick Berry said in a statement. “People are already suffering so much. It is really cruel what the city is doing.”
With shelters across the city at capacity, employees of the park board told other encampment residents to camp in other parks when they were evicted, according to the complaint.
Representatives of the City of Minneapolis, its police department and park board, and Hennepin County did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. City Attorney Jim Rowader told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he thought the lawsuit “misguided.”
“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,” Rowarder told the Star Tribune.
Park board spokeswoman Dawn Sommers also disputed the allegations, telling the Star Tribune that the camps were disbanded as a result of “documented crime, health and safety incidents,” and that notice was given for each eviction.
Bilal Murad is a board member for Zakat Aid and Charity Assisting Humanity (ZACAH), the nonprofit suing the city alongside the five homeless plaintiffs. ZACAH, founded on Islamic principles of charity and focused on preventing homelessness, has been stretched thin by the growing crisis, he said.
“Our goal, originally, was to help individuals who are in desperate need. And the primary goal was to keep people away from homelessness,” Murad said. “We did not start off with the idea of homeless encampments.”
Prior to this summer, Murad said, the group had predominantly been working to keep at-risk people in their homes through financial or other assistance. Sometimes, he said, the organization would pay for hotel stays.
Now, he said, the requests for financial assistance are well outside the group’s means.Time, money and resources are being devoted instead to supporting people in the camps, and the nonprofit is also losing property in police sweeps.
“This is not a role for a nonprofit that is run by seven full-time physicians,” Murad said. “This has taken away from our original mission of trying to prevent homelessness.”
Even though ZACAH has paid for over 2,000 nights in hotels this year, he said, the encampments have taken the bulk of its resources.
“Our resources are being devoted over there. Our time and energy is being devoted over there. And we have not had a response from any responsible party as to how they’re going to take care of this problem,” he added. If encampments aren’t acceptable, Murad said, the state could fund more appropriate shelters for its homeless residents.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to enjoin the defendants from conducting sweeps of the camps, and are seeking punitive damages and compensatory damages for the loss of their property.