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Notes from a city council hearing

I originally posted this on Facebook, but wanted to capture this on the camp blog both for visitors to read and for archival purposes. Below, my post in its entirely after the September 19, 2019 meeting of the Committee of the Whole.

Franklin Hiawatha encampment update: I wrote this as a number of people asked me what happened at the city council meeting today. This is intended as a "just the facts" overview.

I sat through the entire four and a half hour council meeting today, and the sometimes rancorous discussion of the future of the Franklin Hiawatha encampment. It included a long and at times complex presentation on the two sites the city is proposing for a 'Navigation Center'. The Center would temporarily house homeless individuals and provide services while helping them to find more permanent housing.

The two proposed sites are owned by the City: the Roof Depot site at 1860 E 28th St, and a property at 2600 Minnehaha Avenue. One is an empty lot, the other a parking lot. Both would be configured with large trailers to house people and provide sanitation facilities, service facilities, etc. Both sites would cost the same to transform into a Navigation Center and run for one year - about $2 million. But there's one big catch.

For context, the Roof Depot site has been advocated for by Native leaders due to its proximity to the encampment and existing non-profit service providers that the indigenous community relies on.
The Minnehaha site was just made known to the community. It's also close to the encampment, but across Hiawatha Avenue, a multi-lane roadway with a higher speed limit than city streets. It is difficult to cross as a pedestrian, and harder still for someone in a wheel chair or with children in strollers, etc.
Both sites have issues.
The issue with the Minnehaha site is it's proximity to two charter schools. I think this is a very real concern. Some of the individuals at the encampment are wrestling with addiction and this brings with it the problems of crime, drug dealing, etc
The issue with the Roof Depot site is financial in nature. The property was purchased by the City in 2016 with $6.8 million in utility fees (water fund) to provide space for an expansion of the Public Works Department. City staff has said that if the property is used for something else, that $6.8 million would have to be paid back to the water fund.
So as of meeting time today the Minnehaha property would cost $2 million - and the Roof Depot would cost $8.8 million due to the $6.8M pay back. That is four times as much and gave most council members serious pause.
The council voted to approve a motion for staff to begin moving forward with the Minnehaha property - much to the disappointment and anger of some of the people present, including parents of students at the two charter schools and some indigenous community members. Voices were raised towards the council and city staff - which had also happened earlier in the meeting.
After the more vocal attendees left the city council chambers the discussion continued, with council members pressing city staff to get more information on whether the additional $6.8 million payment could be deferred or put in escrow before the final vote of the council tomorrow.
I have many thoughts about all of this - and here are just a few:
How is it that the $6.8M repayment did not get on the radar until the last 24 hours? This potential game changer should have been known long ago as Roof Depot has been discussed as an option for a couple of weeks. Solutions could have been discussed - but that is much more difficult now due purely to lack of time. This is one case where an additional day or two might actually be the better path - rather than make a decision without all the necessary information.
Also, with both proposals having serious issues why wasn't a third option presented to the Council by CPED? I was shocked that one property has a $6.8M additional cost and the other is next to two schools. It's obvious that both of these issues can't be overlooked - so the council was placed in an untenable position.
The Navigation Center as planned is a temporary solution. I believe it is incumbent on city staff to figure out some creative financing to deal with the $6.8 million payback. Without this added cost the Roof Depot appears to be the better site option.
I believe the members of the council are trying their absolute best to do the right thing in a difficult, time sensitive situation fraught with human tragedy and crisis management at every turn, and for that I thank them. But in the end it is my belief that a decision impacting the health and safety of so many people should not be decided on dollars alone - especially in a community that just built a $1,061 billion dollar stadium. As I've heard the community say over and over, it is not a resource issue, but an issue of our priorities. We can and must do better, especially for the indigenous community upon whose land we now reside.

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