Elected officials called them disobedient. Social workers said they’re inexperienced. Neighbors saw them as rabble-rousers.
Through it all, the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement has persisted. What was born out of a mad dash to find shelter for the homeless while the city burned has turned into a loose coalition of locals, many of them young and out of work during the pandemic, seeking to help some of the most vulnerable people in the Twin Cities.
They have looked after those staying in parks and hotels, delivering food and running security. They have stood in the way of officers brought in to clear tents. They have connected with other social justice groups, organizing marches and protests.
Those who identify with the movement say the conventional ways of helping the homeless have not worked. They are now moving past their origins as on-the-ground volunteers by calling on the state to stop clearing encampments and use coronavirus relief funding to house more people in hotels during the winter.
For Patrick Berry, who is homeless and has struggled with mental health problems and addiction, the movement is life-affirming.
“For the first time in my life, I feel cared for,” Berry, 41, said. “It’s really amazing to see people giving hours and hours and hours out of their life for no pay, for no reward, other than the intrinsic reward of helping out your fellow human beings.”
Volunteers have joined the movement from a variety of paths. Some saw encampments popping up in their neighborhood parks. Others were looking for a way to continue the fight for justice ignited by the killing of George Floyd. The homeless, such as Berry, also consider themselves a part of the movement.
“It’s a moving target and it’s kind of morphing all the time,” said volunteer Yusra Murad. “The crux of it, the one central core that does not change, is the lived experiences of people that are without a home.”
Guillermo Perez, who became a part of the movement when people started migrating to Powderhorn Park, described it as a “Ferguson moment,” one where residents united around the need to support those often looked down upon by society.
“People were really about their principles now,” said Perez, age 23. “They weren’t just going to go back home after the protests.”
Yet the movement has been tarnished by mishaps along the way.
As fires and riots raged across Lake Street in May, activists began shepherding people living in encampments into a former Sheraton hotel nearby. The makeshift shelter soon dissolved into chaos, with volunteers overwhelmed and exhausted as they dealt with fights, overdoses and a rush of people looking for a place to stay.
The sanctuary movement then focused on two large encampments at Powderhorn, with volunteers tending to the needs of the campers. As time passed, the camps grew violent and out of control, and volunteers moved people out to other parks. The neighborhood turned against the encampments, and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board cleared them both.
Berry, who lived at Powderhorn, said blame for those issues shouldn’t be assigned to the sanctuary movement.
“The activists, the volunteers and unhoused residents are demonized and vilified as somehow causing this whole thing to begin with, when nothing could be further from the truth,” Berry said. “We’re all trying to do something about it on a day-to-day level, by feeding people, making sure they have some kind of shelter, bedding, the basic things that they need to have some kind of dignity in their life.”
One tactic that has drawn the ire of the Park Board is “eviction defense.” Dozens of people have stood in the way of encampment clearings at parks, insulting police officers and climbing onto the heavy machinery brought in to do the work. That’s led to scenes of officers arresting and pepper-spraying protesters.
After the remaining tents were removed from Powderhorn, Park Board Commissioner LaTrisha Vetaw lambasted the protesters, referring to them as “well-meaning saviors who think that they know the answer to the problems of a community that they have never belonged to or even spent time trying to understand.”
Despite the criticism, some nonprofit workers say they are inspired by the sanctuary movement. John Tribbett, a street outreach program manager for St. Stephen’s Human Services, said it shows people are “finally waking up” to the problem of homelessness.
“It’s been energizing for me to see the number of people from our community, and in particular the number of younger individuals … trying to find a way to help and reach out instead of just turning their head and ignoring the problem or handing somebody a couple of bucks and walking away and thinking that solves the problem,” he said.
Tribbett is concerned about what may happen to homeless people this winter. Park Board leaders have signaled the encampments won’t be around after October, and he doesn’t know of any short-term plan in place to house people once the year ends. Providers like St. Stephen’s, he said, are stretched thin.
The movement’s desire to work outside of traditional systems and their claims that government agencies have not stepped up have created tension and struggles throughout the summer, said Don Ryan, the lead on unsheltered homelessness for Hennepin County.
“Part of the sanctuary movement was, ‘We don’t want help from any public entity. This is a community effort and we’re going to do this by ourselves,’ ” Ryan said. “And I don’t think that anybody can do it by themselves.”
Yet the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement wants elected officials to do more.
Last week, the movement held a rally outside the State Capitol in St. Paul, where more than 100 people demanded that Gov. Tim Walz and state legislators increase funding for hotel rooms and commit to expanding public housing.
“Only the state has the capacity and resources to continue doing this work throughout the winter,” said Dr. Bilal Murad, Yusra’s father and founder of the homeless outreach nonprofit ZACAH, which has put up more than 100 people in hotels this year. “This is not the job for you and I to do. This is what our state politicians were hired to do for us.”
The next day, Sabina Rogers hopped in her cousin’s red pickup truck and began her delivery route. Rogers has cooked and distributed food at encampments throughout the summer, working as part of the F12 People’s Kitchen and coordinating donations.
Rogers stopped by several encampments across town throughout the evening, including those at Minnehaha Falls, Lake Nokomis and Lyndale Farmstead Park. She dropped off fried rice dishes and pizzas donated by Dumpling and Pizza Luce.
Rogers lost her job at the start of the pandemic and has been able to devote her time to organizing food distribution. She is unsure of what her involvement will look like once she gets back to work.
“We’re not going to go away over the winter. I think we’re going to be preparing for the spring,” said Rogers, who moved to Minneapolis last year. “I think the sanctuary movement will continue, as well.”
At 23, she has already participated in several direct actions, including at Occupy Seattle and the Dakota Access pipeline protests. The sanctuary movement seems different, she said. It’s more personal.
“It’s always a feeling like the revolution is just around the corner. And people do all of this work that is gritty and ordinary and tedious with this idea that soon it will pay off for this, like, large-scale revolution,” she said.
“With this movement, it feels even closer to that corner.”