Search for homeless solutions continues as latest Minneapolis encampment burns to the ground

Search for solutions continues as latest Minneapolis homeless encampment burns to ground

Search for solutions continues as latest Minneapolis homeless encampment burns to ground

It was a smoky, destructive fire, that struck without warning.

A noontime blaze that tore through a homeless encampment along East 28th Street in South Minneapolis Thursday.

“I just saw that corner of a yurt start on fire, I just saw it light up in flames,” recalls Nicole Mason, a camp organizer with the Red Lake Nation.

Next door, Ashley Jensen was working at home when she heard a neighbor shouting a warning.

“Everyone is screaming, I need to get out of my house. I grabbed the dog and ran out the front door,” she says. “It was like a huge, roaring fire. I noticed it was spreading fast. I was really worried my house was going to burn down.”

As reported by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, Minneapolis firefighters were called to the encampment around 12:07 p.m.

“When we arrived, the encampment was fully in flames,” Chief Bryan Tyner told reporters.

He says fire crews got the flames under control in about a half-hour.

Authorities say two people were treated at the scene, one for minor burns to the hands, and another for smoke inhalation.

“We are happy there were no fatalities,” says City Operations Officer Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Mayor Jacob Frey reiterated he and his team have ‘deep concerns about the prevalence and size’ of homeless encampments, saying they’re ‘not safe’ for residents or those living nearby.

Left behind, a charred landscape.

Encampment residents could be seen trying to salvage belongings from the site.  

“When’s it going to end?” asked a neighbor, who didn’t want to be identified. “The mayor’s office and council members have to do better. Do better for (encampment residents) but also do better for the taxpayers here. Keep them off the street and enforce the law. This is not a lawful encampment. Why do they get a free pass?”

Jensen says she’s supportive of finding resources for people who need shelter.

But she worries about damage to her house- several outside walls had siding that had warped and buckled from the heat of the fire.

Jensen adds she recently spoke to city officials about safety conditions in and around the encampment.

“Especially like the individual fires that were in every single tent. That was like a huge fire hazard, obviously as we saw that play out,” she notes. “But also, there’s been used needles, unfortunately, like all around my property. A little bit scary. I don’t know how to deal with that.”

Just hours after the fire, a new encampment popped up just blocks away, along 14th Avenue South, near East 29th Street.

 We asked Mayor Frey about solutions for the cycle of encampments being cleared, only to appear elsewhere.

 “We should be providing a continuum of care, where we get people into shelter,” he says. “We’ve drastically expanded our shelter system in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. We should be getting people into long term and affordable housing, and we need to be looking at root causes.”

The mayor says shelters currently have and have had space for people.

He mentioned groups like Helix Health and Housing Services, a for-profit group that has a $1 million contract with the city.

Helix says it’s been able to provide shelter for nearly 100 people who formerly lived in Camp Nenookaasi, as it’s known.  

RELATED: A Minnesota for-profit has a new strategy to help those without shelter find a home

Mayor Frey also explained the issue of getting people at encampments into more permanent shelters ‘is not exclusively related to housing,’ saying that addiction often plays a role.

Anderson Kelliher noted a member of the city’s homeless response team, the Red Cross, and other community partners were called in to offer support, and that a Metro Transit Bus was brought in to provide temporary shelter for encampment residents.  

Authorities believe about 50 people were living in the fire-damaged encampment.

An official cause of the blaze is under investigation.

Meanwhile, encampment organizers insist they’re staying put, until everyone living there has permanent shelter.

“That’s the goal, to get everybody housed,” Mason says. “We’re not taking more people in. We’re trying to get everybody in this camp housed. I am not going anywhere. So, if they want to keep evicting, with no solutions, go right on ahead. Like I tell everyone, we’re not going anywhere. We’re staying with the people.”