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Minneapolis sued for kicking unhoused people out of park encampments

“He realized, while watching the bulldozer roll over his tent, that he would have to start all over again."

“He realized, while watching the bulldozer roll over his tent, that he would have to start all over again." David Joles, Star Tribune

After becoming homeless in May, Dennis Barrow, 42, of Minneapolis, tried to make things work in a variety of different temporary locations.

He briefly stayed with the mother of his son, but was accused – though not convicted – of domestic violence. Then he went with a friend to stay at the former Sheraton Hotel in Minneapolis, which had been converted into a temporary shelter in the early days of the uprising set off by the police killing of George Floyd.

After the hotel evicted everyone living there, Barrow set up a tent in Powderhorn Park and lived there for a couple of months. (Read our July cover story about the sudden growth of volunteer-led tent encampments in city parks.) Then one day, police showed up and told everyone to clear out.

According to a civil complaint, he and the other people living in the encampment got notices saying they had 72 hours to leave, but officers “showed up with bulldozers” just a day later.

“Mr. Barrow began collecting his belongings from his tent as officers… began taping off the perimeter of the encampment,” a complaint filed Monday reads. “Officers told him that he had to clear out his tent by the time they finished taping off the perimeter.”

The complaint says Barrow nervously grabbed as much of his stuff from the tent as he could, knowing whatever he left would be bulldozed with everything else. Whatever he couldn’t carry – including, he says, his tent, his sleeping bag, almost all of his clothes, hygiene supplies, medications, and court documents – got crushed under the machinery.

“He realized, while watching the bulldozer roll over his tent, that he would have to start all over again,” the complaint says.

After staying in a few spots and accepting a donated tent, Barrow tried to settle down in Logan Park, but had been there for only a few weeks when the first threats of eviction began. Barrow lives in a van now, which he must move every three days to avoid getting towed, and calls shelters that tell him they’re full or don’t return his calls at all.

Barrow’ is one of several unhoused plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, and local law enforcement by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. The plaintiffs reportedly lost some of their most important possessions when heavy equipment trundled through the parks where they’d been living – tents, mattresses, birth certificates, family photos. Some feared their entire lives could be literally swept away at any moment, or that they’d be forced to risk COVID-19 exposure in a crowded shelter.

The suit says Minneapolis and Hennepin County violated people's constitutional rights by bullying them out of their camps. They want a stop to the evictions, and compensation for those who have been displaced by park sweeps.

“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,” ACLU attorney Clare Diegel said in a statement. “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.”

The parks board responded to the lawsuit with a statement saying “no person’s civil or human rights were violated” in the board’s response to the park encampments, and that many of the allegations are “simply not true.”

“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,” it said.

The parks board added that “camping in parks now is simply not humane or safe,” and that “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.”

The City Attorney’s Office also released a statement calling the lawsuit “misguided.” The statement read, in part:

“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, particularly in the face of mounting evidence that real threats to safety and health of plaintiffs and other members of the community continue to grow and persist by the continuance of remaining encamped in public parks and spaces."