Public parks were the best housing option for many unhoused people in the Twin Cities in 2020. Even when space in public shelters was available — which was rare — they were a hazardous option in a pandemic. More than 300 of the 3000+ unhoused people in the Twin Cities made their homes in urban outdoor spaces.

This year was Henrietta Brown’s first time living in a tent in public space. On a September morning before dawn, she was awakened by bright lights in her face. Law enforcement shook Brown’s tent and told her she had 30 minutes to get out.

Brown grabbed her purse and a blanket. The officers threatened arrest when she went back for more items. She watched as her tent — with her birth certificate, application for medical assistance, and personal belongings — were thrown into the garbage.

“The whole experience was so traumatizing,” says Brown. “I wasn’t really awake, it was cold, raining really hard, and I had no notice. I couldn’t understand why police didn’t realize that what camp residents have in our tents is all we have.”

Brown and others who were evicted that morning received help from ZACAH, a non-profit that supports Minnesotans facing poverty and displacement from their homes. ZACAH paid for a Super 8 hotel room for Brown in the following weeks.

Fighting Back

Brown joined eight others who had been evicted from their tent homes, along with ZACAH, in a class action suit against the City of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and Hennepin County. The suit, filed by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, alleged that the park board, city, and county violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs and others living in the parks by destroying encampments with little or no notice, bulldozing people’s shelters, and trashing their personal belongings.

“It’s good to fight back,” Brown says. “Nobody deserves or wants to be treated the way I was. If I see something wrong, I’m going to speak up — especially when it comes to the elderly, the disabled, or the homeless.”

When advocates who work with the unsheltered homeless community contacted Legal Aid for help, the housing team began an investigation immediately. The challenges involved in working with unhoused individuals during a pandemic were great. With no mailing addresses or reliable access to cell phones and electricity, face-to-face meetings were essential.

Staff Attorney Rebecca Stillman traveled between camps to build relationships with residents while navigating the difficulties of doing this in a pandemic. Her daily presence meant that she knew the people, was familiar with the camps’ day-to-day functions, and often witnessed events as they transpired.

“On the Ground” Legal Advocates

“I was there on the ground,” says Stillman, who was later able to identify inaccuracies in the defendants’ briefs. “It upset our clients to hear defendants say things that weren’t true to their experience. When they asked how that could happen, I didn’t have a good answer. But we are doing our best to represent them and their experience.”

Similar cases have been brought in other cities and states. Legal Aid has chosen to focus this suit on due process and privacy rights, noting the troublesome intersection of these evictions with Governor Walz’s executive order placing a moratorium on evictions.

“Most of these folks have been consistently mistreated by a network of systems that do not serve them, resulting in a cycle of homelessness,” Stillman reflects. “They’re subject to outrageous stereotyping. Stories about encampments leave out important details, like how tents are people’s homes, with decorations and personal belongings, just like anyone’s home.”

“Working with Rebecca has been great,” says Brown. “She’s been very informative, and I know she cares. She’s a good listener, and she’s competent. That’s what you call a winning lawyer in my book.”

Building a Better Future

Legal Aid hopes to hold the city, park board, and county accountable for their actions. The sweeps have exacerbated the problems of an already vulnerable — and disproportionately Black and Indigenous — population. Legal Aid seeks to ensure the civil rights of every individual, regardless of their resources or lack thereof, are protected.

“We’re at an unprecedented moment with the dilemma of unhoused residents,” says Stillman. “We are clearly unequipped — structurally, physically, or emotionally. Rather than treating people without housing as ‘public safety threats,’ we should be working on ways to welcome them into our community as neighbors.”

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