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ACLU Minnesota, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid file lawsuit to stop sweeps of homeless encampments

The lawsuit is being filed against Hennepin County, the city of Minneapolis, the heads of local law enforcement and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.
Credit: KARE

MINNEAPOLIS — On Monday afternoon, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN) and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid announced they have filed a lawsuit to stop sweeps of homeless encampments in Minneapolis parks. 

According to Litigation Director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid Justin Perl, the lawsuit is seeking an immediate temporary restraining order against the bulldozing of encampments and the destruction of personal property of the people living in them, and later a permanent injunction to stop similar sweeps in the future. 

The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of seven people who were impacted by these sweeps in recent months, as well as Eagan-based nonprofit Zakat, Aid and Charity Assisting Humanity (ZACAH), which provides resources to those experiencing homelessness. 

The complaint asserts:

  • Violations of their clients’ right to be free from unreasonable seizures under the federal and state constitutions
  • Violations of the right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment
  • Violation of due process as required by the Fourteenth Amendment

It also alleges the defendants have committed conversion by destroying their clients’ belongings.

“In a nutshell, this case is about being evicted from one’s home,” Perl said. “Instead of following the law, these indiscriminate and constant encampment sweeps are done without notice, without providing shelter space and without adequate, permanent housing in our community.” 

On Sept. 24, 2020 one of the clients involved in the lawsuit, Henrietta Brown, was awakened at 4 a.m. to pouring rain and police officers shaking her tent, shining bright lights in her face, and yelling that she had 30 minutes to clear the area, Perl said. When Brown asked for more time to gather important papers, she was allegedly threatened with arrest, and as a result, lost her birth certificate, identification card and various sentimental pictures. 

Another of the clients, Patrick Berry, spoke in a press briefing on Monday. Berry lived in three different parks around Minneapolis over the summer before moving into the west encampment in Powderhorn Park. 

“On August 10th, at 7 a.m., a friend woke me up to tell me that police were clearing the park,” he said. “I hadn’t seen an eviction notice of any kind and no one had been talking about it. When I went outside my tent that morning, I saw police form a perimeter around the top of the park with yellow caution tape. The scene was pretty chaotic, there were bulldozers standing by. The friend who had woken me up got on a bullhorn and was yelling. The police put them into handcuffs, shoved them into a police car, and drove away. I knew where their belongings were, so I ran and grabbed them to keep them safe. I didn’t know where I was going to go, and I couldn’t carry everything with me. Bulldozers cleared everything, and there was a dumpster full of belongings. They threw away people’s identification, family photos, their medication— I lost my tent, sleeping mattress, and sleeping bags.”

According to Claire Deigel, a staff attorney with ACLU-MN, COVID-19 has led to job loss, financial difficulties and housing shortages, exacerbating existing issues for those struggling with stable housing. She also said the pandemic has prompted people to avoid crowded indoor shelters where infection is more likely to occur. 

“That’s why Governor Walz signed emergency orders recognizing that the sweeps and disbandment of encampments actually increases the potential risk and spread of COVID-19,” she said. “The governor’s order prohibited sweeping encampments unless the government could provide sufficient alternative shelter, or the encampment was a documented threat to people’s health, safety and security. Despite these orders from the governor, officials from the city, the parks department and Hennepin County— including law enforcement— almost immediately started to enact plans to sweep the parks anyway.” 

Another issue the sweeps cause, according to President of ZACAH Dr. Bilal Murad, is disconnecting vulnerable people from those that are trying to help them. 

Work that ZACAH was doing to get people who were sick in the encampments the healthcare assistance they needed was lost when their encampment was destroyed and they were displaced.

“There is a non-zero chance that some of these people have actually lost their lives or become seriously ill,” Dr. Murad said, adding that he knew of at least one death. “These are completely preventable deaths that will never be accounted for. The constant evictions have resulted in the destruction of property, the loss of community that is built at the parks and the loss of psychological safety. This is dehumanization. You and I know where we will sleep tonight in the comfort of our homes. A state that cannot provide that peace of mind to each of its citizens is an example of abject failure.” 

A statement from the City Attorney's Office in Minneapolis said that the lawsuit from ACLU-MN and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid is "disappointing." 

“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," the statement said. "Our response today to this action is to request that rather than pursue such misguided legal action, the ACLU-MN and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid join the City, County and others throughout our metropolitan community in spending our resources and energy to stay focused on identifying and developing solutions that actually solve the problem of homelessness rather than attempting to place blame on those who are and have been engaged in that very important work.”

The Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board also issued the following statement:

"The Board of Commissioners, the Superintendent, and the staff of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) have been supporting unsheltered people in parks since spring 2020 as required by Governor Tim Walz’s executive orders related to COVID and people experiencing homelessness. Since mid-July, after the elected Park Board enacted Resolution 2020-267 the MPRB staff have been implementing those Board directives consistent with Governor Walz’s executive orders. The MPRB has been humane, lawful, and measured in its responses to temporary encampments in the parks. All actions and efforts have been shared publicly and have been available online at www.minneapolisparks.org/encampments. Before any attempt to remove persons from an encampment, individuals experiencing homelessness in a park or those persons facilitating an encampment were given notice and offers of assistance to find proper and suitable shelter. No person’s civil or human rights were violated.

"The lawsuit filed today by the Minnesota ACLU, Legal Aid and Zacah makes numerous allegations, many of which 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. Since mid-July, park staff have communicated with and established permit and outreach processes for unsheltered people living in park encampments. Park outreach staff have been providing assistance in connecting unsheltered people with shelter spaces, which are currently available and have been routinely available since mid-July.

"The MPRB has consistently acknowledged that parks do not provide dignified shelter. The MPRB has worked the last five months with state, county, city, and social service organizations to find safe shelter and for people experiencing homelessness in park encampments before cold weather settles in and to reduce the number of temporary encampments from over 40 to 10 today. Winter has now come to Minnesota and fires and propane are not allowed in Minneapolis parks. Camping in parks now is simply not human or safe. 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."