Helter Shelter

Fresh air, a river at your feet, and stars on the ceiling: Home, sweet home. At least until Minneapolis cops raid your camp.

Sonny Peet is dead. They found him washed up on the riverbank. The news follows the Mississippi down from North Minneapolis, spills out into railroad trenches, and floods the shores of meager campsites--scraps of cardboard, a sleeping bag, a stash of clothing in the shrubbery next to an overpass.

Sonny Peet is dead. He washed up wearing nothing but his camo pants, his shoes, his belt. At every encampment along the river you hear his name.

Someone saw him swimming on September 3--but who goes swimming in their pants? Who goes swimming at all in that muck? They searched for his body for two weeks. It just disappeared. Finally he surfaced by the Riverview Supper Club, swollen up like a frog, bloated, smelling like the river--worse.

Mark Wojahn

It's 1 o'clock in the afternoon in a field of gravel by Minneapolis's old Grain Belt Brewery on the Mississippi--fine September weather, with a hint of chill behind the sun. Time to get a mummy bag, heavy boots, a winter coat. A fringe of trees stands along an embankment on one side of the lot. The leaves are still green, but you can tell they're fading out to brown. A hand grips one of the trunks, shaking its crown. A man pulls his weary frame up the hill, pauses at the crest, then ambles across a strip of grass, heading toward a mud-hole at the center of the lot. A young man coasts in on his bicycle, and another pair wanders up to join the gathering.

The Sally--the Salvation Army food truck--motors into the lot. By now some 20 men are waiting for its back doors to swing open, tramps and hobos and homeless men who camp along the banks and railroad tracks.

The Sally punctuates days on the riverfront, meals served off the truck having worked their way into the rhythm of daily life here. The vehicle bounces slowly over the bumps, stopping by the mud-hole to unlatch its rear doors. It's Wednesday, the day they pass out hot food.

"Hey, Jeff. Hey, Dana."

"Hey, Mike, Jim."

"D'ja hear about Sonny Peet?"

Sonny Peet is the latest casualty among the river and railroad dwellers ("camp tramps" is the name some have adopted). To the authorities, he was just one more vagrant who didn't stand out in life or death. The county medical examiners looked over Dennis "Sonny" Peet, age 39, single, no permanent address, and ruled his death a fresh-water drowning. Case closed.

But all along the river, the camp tramps keep his story alive--as a fatal instance, a consequence of the dangers they face. First the news of his death and then, sucking behind it like a rip tide, the rumors: Sonny Peet got tipped into the river by skinheads, by turf kids from gangland. Sonny Peet got beat by some drunk tramp--maybe you, maybe me. Sonny Peet slipped and fell into the current. Sonny Peet got himself drowned by the cops. Then a shake of the head. "Shit," one guy in line says, "it's getting more dangerous down here every day."

Sally's giving out ribs today. Good stuff. Something to drink? Coffee? More bikes materialize. A camper pulls up, a little worse for the wear and creaking on its springs. A stooped old man in a Camel T-shirt and a very small girl step out to take their place in line. A pickup with a sagging bed lets out four men, their sunbaked faces grimy with work dirt.

Wesley LaGrange arrives a minute or two after the truck. He exchanges handshakes and hellos all around. "I got my jacket," he tells a friend. "See? Got my winter jacket out of storage." He spins on his heel showing off the coat, a dull-green parka he's had stashed at a friend's house along with winter supplies. Wesley lives year-round at his campsite just off the railroad tracks.

White paper bags all around: ribs, juice, broth with lots of crackers in Styrofoam cups. The men scatter out and squat by the power poles, opening bags and quieting down to eat. For a while there's time to twist a Top cigarette and talk a little. A death in the family is big news. Part of the calculus of life on the river lately is death, or beating, or rape, or losing your camp to cop sweeps. (Minneapolis police say they don't keep separate statistics on violence in the camps or on the tracks, but the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless says 50 homeless people died around the state last year, most of them in Minneapolis and St. Paul, most from exposure or violence.)

The camper with the young girl inside pulls away first. Then the pickup. Bicycles evaporate. Men slip two by two back into the woods along the river. The Sally wagon closes shop and lumbers off. Wesley turns his back on the brewery and stands alone, again, in the empty field of gravel before heading toward camp.

Whatever you make of Sonny Peet's death, it underscores a simple truth: The margins of error have never been slimmer for homeless men in the city many of them have come to call "Minnehopeless."

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