It is not unusual to see tent-filled encampments spring up overnight in pockets of the urban core, only to be removed days or weeks later by law enforcement. Local leaders say the camps are unsafe, but residents say living this way is their only option.
Reader Edward Hauser of Becker sought some historical perspective about this problem. He recalled his grandparents talking about "bums" riding the rails during the Great Depression, but doesn't recall encampments being much of an issue until now.
"Where did homeless people go or live in the past?" Hauser asked Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's community reporting project fueled by reader questions. "I know they must have existed."
Though rocked by different hardships throughout history, deeply poor Americans have always lived rough in public areas. Encampments by different names have existed in Minnesota since the state's early history, according to research and newspaper accounts on the subject located with the assistance of Hennepin County Library staff.
In the 1880s — predating city codes that set standards for human habitation — European immigrants inhabited barrios cobbled from scrap building materials on the Mississippi River flats. Then came the "Hoovertowns" and "Rooseveltvilles" of the 1930s and a skid row that sprawled across downtown Minneapolis for the first half of the 20th century.
But those fighting homelessness today say the magnitude and complexity of contemporary encampments surpasses anything that existed in recent memory. In addition to an affordable housing shortage, factors driving more people to live on the streets include the availability of cheap and powerful opioids — which has complicated efforts to get people stable housing.
Refuges on the river
America has grappled with homelessness since at least the colonial era, when people showed less sympathy toward the issue than they do today, according to the 1989 book "Down and Out in America: the Origins of Homelessness." Author Peter Rossi documented 17th century New England town meetings in which widows, children, disabled and elderly people were barred from settlement rights and public assistance, forcing them to join the ranks of a transient poor.
Beginning in 1860, Minneapolis and St. Paul relegated their newest and poorest immigrants to creek- and riverside shanties that flooded each spring, including the West Side Flats, Swede Hollow and the Bohemian Flats. Notorious for crime and poor sanitation, these types settlements would not be permitted today.
Yet many families who built their homes in the Mississippi floodplain stayed for decades until private developers bought out the land or the city forcibly ejected them.
"Wives hold river flat homes when police attempt eviction," blared the headline of a 1923 Minneapolis Morning Tribune story about "an angry group of women" defending their homes in the Bohemian Flats.
Most of the "squatters" were evicted from 1926 to 1931. Archaeologist Rachel Hines traced nearly 40% of the ejected households to new addresses by 1930, but many others could not be found in the city directory.
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