Near North encampment dodges eviction — for now

By: J.D. Duggan, Freelance Community Journalist

A thriving camp of houseless people in Near North Minneapolis has faced repeated threats of eviction by the city, but residents said they hope they can remain in their location on an empty stretch of city-owned land.

In late January, houseless people in Near North Minneapolis braced for the worst.

It was a harsh 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and a supposed eviction was on the doorstep for the nearly 20 people who had pitched tents on an empty plot of city-owned land.

By midmorning, two city officials showed up: Minneapolis Police Department Lt. Grant Snyder and Ward 5 City Council member Jeremiah Ellison. Snyder told residents that there would be no eviction that day.

The officials then asked residents what they needed. JoJo Miller, one of the residents, said they just needed time. They were trying to figure out their next move.

The Near North encampment has been a strong community for months, facing multiple threats of eviction and frigid weather. Many residents were a part of the massive Powderhorn Park encampment before the city broke it up due to safety issues. They then settled at B.F. Nelson Park in Northeast Minneapolis, where they were again evicted.

Many of them have been in the Near North camp since — and have dodged further threats to break up the camp.

Miller has been trying to collect money to help the residents buy land or a house together. He said he’s not going to stop until he meets his goal.

“I want a house, land, the whole nine for them to build,” Miller said. “My goal isn’t just to house the homeless. We want to get them in, work with their mental health … and I want them to get acclimated back into society. Get their strength back.”

Sandy Kelting. Photo Credit to Tim Speier.

Sandy Kelting has been in the Near North camp since late fall. She moved from B.F. Nelson when the city pushed them out. She said the camp feels like family and it’s “just an amazing group of people.” Before the pandemic, she was sleeping on the train. She much prefers having a tent with the community. 

“We have each other’s backs, and it’s hugely important,” Kelting said. “I think most of us feel like we’d like to stay together.” 

She said that as a person born in the 1960s, she was always curious about what living in a commune or a big house with a bunch of people would be like. She would have her own room, but still some privacy. She said the camp kind of feels like that. 

“I always wondered if I would like a hippie commune,” Kelting said. “I do.”

Threatening eviction

Earlier in January, the city pushed the encampment across the street from their original space, citing contaminated ground. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has marked the area as having hazardous waste and toxic metals, among other possible pollutants.

Snyder said that after the move, he would have no reason to bother them. However, city officials expressed concern about soil contamination throughout the camp area.

Within a few weeks of the move, city authorities gave residents eviction notices, citing public health and safety concerns. The eviction papers list numbers to connect people with shelters, but many residents say the shelters feel undignified and unsafe.

The city did not make any staff members available for comment.

Due to the extreme cold, the city postponed the Near North encampment’s closure to the end of February. That order was also ultimately canceled just days before the planned eviction date. Now, the future of the camp remains uncertain.

The Near North encampment sits on a plot of city-owned stretch of land where it has faced repeated threats of eviction from the city. Photo credit to Tim Speier

One resident compared the regular encampment evictions to a “death march.” He said it feels like the city is going to keep moving them until they die.

“I can speak for many of us, we’re just tired,” Kelting said about a week before the planned eviction. “Especially in this cold weather, you know, to have to put tents up when it’s freezing out and try to keep it dry.”

Katie Topinka, housing policy coordinator in Minneapolis’ planning department, sent an email to Council members the week of the most recent planned closure saying that the city wanted to support residents’ efforts to find stable housing. She wrote that it is reasonable to provide them time to secure that housing or shelter. 

But, she added, a closure is still imminent, and no firm timeline is set.

“We will have to close it at some point in the near future because the contaminated soil conditions may harm people with prolonged exposure,” the email reads.

Residents try to build safer camp

Council member Ellison doesn’t believe that expelling people at all costs and forcing them to “defend their home” serves anybody. But he said that if city departments use their “hard power” to evict the camp, he has no counter to stop them.

He noted that city staff have been open to approaching Near North differently than other camps. The community has not shown safety concerns to the level of some of the bigger encampments that cropped up over the last year, some of which had overdoses or sexual assaults.

Multiple residents at Near North said they feel safe and they take care of each other.

About two years ago, Seneca Morris was living in a space about fifty yards from the Near North encampment. The spot is nestled against a small river in a plot dotted with containers of shredded metal, which Morris slept in. 

When another group arrived from B.F. Nelson and elsewhere, the camps combined. People came together. 

“So far, you know, things have been good,” Morris said. “We just kind of combined … to try to make things safer for everybody.”

A strong network of volunteers that has supported the camp. Neighbors have offered electricity and garbage cans. Groups have brought hot meals and a donation website — Minneapolis Northside Mutual Aid — has raised nearly $40,000 as of March 4. JoJo Miller has also solicited donations on Venmo that have helped houseless people, and he said he was able to get people into hotels during extremely cold nights.

On the day of the most-recent threatened eviction, at least 20 community members and activists showed up with food to celebrate the city’s cancelation. Many already planned to confront the city if an eviction was carried out.

Mandla Xaba, or Cpo, said the camp has been like a sanctuary. He moved with some residents from Powderhorn to B.F. Nelson to Near North. He said Powderhorn was crowded and chaotic, but the group that is currently at Near North has done a good job of maintaining themselves. “That’s why this group is still together,” Xaba said.

‘Treat people with dignity’

Ellison said the city needs to work with the residents and help them move forward with their goals without instilling a sense of terror, which has come through repeated threats of eviction. 

“It’s building relationships, getting an understanding of what people’s goals are and then getting really creative about how we leverage resources,” Ellison said. Xaba said the city is worried about property values in an area that is facing gentrification. After promises that they would be fine on their current land, he said the city’s handling has been “cruel and wrong.”

 “We’ve done everything that was asked of us. We haven’t been a nuisance, and we’re still being threatened with eviction,” he said.

Xaba said the city has used fear tactics to make them move. When they were still facing the threat of eviction, he said he felt that the city had not lived up to its end of the promise. He understands why officials would clear a camp like Powderhorn, but he feels they should be working more closely with the residents at Near North to secure funds — especially considering how much money they have raised themselves.

The city should act as an ally to the camp, Xaba said, and he feels that it hasn’t so far. When asked what it would look like for the city to be an ally, he said he would expect the city to be honest.

“Don’t tell people that they don’t face eviction only to try to move them around and use confusion,” Xaba said. “Treat people with dignity.”

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