Ground Zero

Wedged between Target Center, the freeway, and the garbage incinerator, Currie Avenue is the terminal station for the city's unwanted.

Peter walks in not long after the paramedics have vanished with the guy who threw up in the waste-paper basket. He's hungry for details, but knows better than to ask. "Did they ever find his bag?" he ventures. "No," Mary E says, barely looking up from her computer. She's in the middle of a game of Hearts. "Figures." He falls into the roller chair and folds his arms on the desk. "Mary E, I need help. I went back to work, but I'm not getting paid until Friday. I need to get out of here. I need one of those emergency checks."

Mary E gives him a sidelong glance. "Well, Peter, I'll just cut you one. How much do you need?"

"What can you afford?"

"Oh," she ponders, "two, three hundred?"

"That sounds good. Can I have it tomorrow?"

"Wednesday, maybe. It has to go downtown first."

"Thanks, Mary! You're doing the work of the angels."

"Yeah," she mutters, her eyes still on the screen.

The transaction is entirely deadpan. It appears they've played this game millions of times before--perhaps not here and not with each other, but often enough for the routines to have worn in just right. Often enough so they both know the joke is on them. On Currie Avenue, this is how you keep your sanity.

The thing to know about Currie is that it's not much of an avenue. It's a one-block stretch of pavement left hanging when they put in I-394 from Target Center to Minnetonka; the only street leading to it is a one-way coming from the garbage incinerator. You're very unlikely to end up here by accident.

And it's no accident that Currie has become what it is. "Little Calcutta" is one name that circulates. "Bowery North" another. Or you could just call it "The Zone." The name doesn't matter, since few people outside this place even suspect it exists.

Yet its appearance was, in a way, inevitable. Somewhere there had to be a catch basin, a holding tank, a place for those who can't or won't or may not go anywhere else. Currie is home to the Salvation Army Harbor Lights Center, the last shelter in town to take the drunk, the sick, and the crazy; and to a human depot called the Hennepin County Safe Waiting Area. It also has abandoned doorways, grassy patches with cut fences, and freeway embankments where the cops turn a blind eye to overnight camping. On a good night, Mary E estimates, something like 1,000 people sleep on and around Currie, more than in a lot of outstate towns.

Mary E's full name is Mary Erpelding, but she doesn't use it much. She works for Hennepin County's Access Unit. In theory her job is to find homeless people who qualify for mental-health services. In practice she's confessor, nurse, cop, jester, palace guard, teacher, spy, and just about everything else you could imagine a short, 54-year-old woman with bleached hair and a voice of many registers to be. She has a desk downtown, but most of her time is spent around Currie. If you're going to spend any amount of time on the avenue, you'll have to deal with Mary E.

At 7p.m. on a velvety July evening, Currie is just hitting its stride. Someone has brought a plastic football, and the pavement vibrates with 20-year-old feet in running shoes while an old guy with a cane officiates. A woman in a polka-dotted shirt mooches a Kool from the guy next to her.

Mary E is digging through the trunk of her Saturn, retrieving the supplies for the rest of the evening. There's a bag of pretzels, bait to attract visitors to her makeshift office; a green plastic container full of pills for her seizures; a family-size bottle of liquid soap. The county, Mary E explains, won't allow soap in the showers in Safe Waiting, because that would make it too much like a shelter. So the staff has taken to bringing in these bottles and setting them out with a pile of Dixie cups.

Safe Waiting is one of those Orwellian names, kind of like the Peacekeeper missile. What it suggests is a bus depot, a departure hall, a place to hang out on the way to something else. What it is is the end of the road. Hennepin County created Safe Waiting two years ago, when it decided to deny shelter to people without children, a disability, or some other special qualification. The original idea was for a space with nothing but chairs, lest anyone get comfortable. Then Catholic Charities took over the program and moved it to a former soup kitchen on Currie. Instead of chairs they now hand out rubber mats, about two inches thick and a foot too short for an adult.

Like everything else on Currie, Safe Waiting has a hierarchy. People who can prove they're working get to lay their mat in the upstairs hall; it fits 125 and is full most every night by 9. The downstairs fits as many again, and an additional dozen--"the drunk and the violent," Mary E flatly explains--are kept in the lobby. If you've never seen a refugee camp, Safe Waiting by about midnight is a pretty good approximation.

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