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Lawsuit seeks to block evictions of Minneapolis homeless encampments

NBC News logo NBC News 10/20/2020 Daniella Silva
Webster Tarpley sitting on top of a grass covered field © Provided by NBC News

Seven people who were evicted from homeless encampments in Minneapolis parks this year and had their property destroyed sued the city and others in federal court on Monday claiming that their constitutional rights had been violated.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Minnesota, seeks to stop the sweeps of the homeless encampments in the city's parks, alleging they violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution, as well as the Minnesota Constitution and common law. The suit is seeking a temporary restraining order on the evictions and a preliminary injunction.

Dozens of encampments have sprung up in Minneapolis this year in the wake of the pandemic, with some allowed to remain and others being torn down in evictions.

“Giving little or no notice, law enforcement bulldozed people’s shelters, throwing away personal belongings including keepsakes, identification cards, clothing and blankets,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which filed the lawsuit along with the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said in a statement.

“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,” Patrick Berry, one of the plaintiffs, said in the statement. Berry lost his tent, mattress and sleeping bag during one camp eviction. “People are already suffering so much. It is really cruel what the city is doing.”

a man sitting in a park: Patrick Berry, 41, packs his belongings into a bag at the © Ed Ou Patrick Berry, 41, packs his belongings into a bag at the

The lawsuit names Hennepin County, the city of Minneapolis, local law enforcement and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board as defendants.

“Homelessness is a crisis across the country, even in our prosperous city of Minneapolis, and simply removing people from public view is not the solution,” Justin Perl, litigation director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said in the statement. “The city and county's bulldozer approach is not only cruel, it is shortsighted, counterproductive, and a waste of taxpayers' dollars.”

Clare Diegel, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said there are thousands of people who are homeless in the Twin Cities and “the city and county have failed to offer adequate shelter or housing.”

“Instead, the so-called plan is to repeatedly kick out hundreds of residents without permanent homes from public parks, upend their lives, destroy their property and then fail to find them somewhere safe to live,” she said in the statement. “Throwing away people’s only belongings without notice is a shameful violation of their civil liberties.”

ZACAH, a local nonprofit that supports Minnesotans facing poverty and housing instability, is also named as a plaintiff in the suit.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) released a statement disputing the claims in the suit and insisting they have been following coronavirus guidelines set by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.

"The lawsuit filed today by the Minnesota ACLU, Legal Aid and Zacah makes numerous allegations, many of which are simply not true," the MPRB said. "This summer several park encampments were removed due to size; documented crime, health, and safety incidents; or location in a school safety zone. In all cases, notice to vacate was provided to those living in the encampments, significant social service outreach took place, and transportation was offered to shelter locations."

"The MPRB has consistently acknowledged that parks do not provide dignified shelter," the statement continued. "Three people have already died at homeless encampments in Minneapolis this year. The action by the plaintiffs in today’s lawsuit does absolutely nothing to ensure the safety of homeless people in the coming days when the first days of winter are upon us all."

Officials for Hennepin County did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Issues of racial inequality, skyrocketing housing prices and stagnating wages have created a homelessness crisis in the city, even before the pandemic began and before protests over George Floyd's death in May put the city in the national spotlight.

As the homeless population in Minneapolis has grown, the pandemic also limited or closed vital services and public spaces, forcing more people without housing into the open. As a result, the crisis has been playing out in the city’s vast park spaces, housing advocates and local officials said.

An encampment in a city park this summer grew to nearly 300 people living out of some 600 tents.

As of Oct. 15, there were 222 tents in 14 parks, according to the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, with about 100 along the Midtown Greenway, a bicycle-pedestrian trail. There were also 1,327 people who had stayed in emergency shelters in Hennepin County as of Oct. 13.

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