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.

But most of those beds disappeared during the office-construction boom of the 1980s; according to figures provided by Kirk Hill of the Minneapolis Tenants Union, the core city lost more than 2,000 single-room occupancy units between 1970 and 1990. And in the current rental market, where vacancy rates continue to hover under 2 percent, rents run from $200 for a sleeping room (if you can find one) to $600 for a one-bedroom unit. Add security deposits, and application fees ranging from $30 to $50 (and the increasingly stringent background screenings such fees fund), and you get an entire segment of the population locked out of the rental housing market--making it that much harder, Wood says, for homeless people to "get their hands on the bottom rung of the economic ladder."

"I've been working at St. Stephen's shelter for about 10 years," says Mary Gallini, the shelter's program director. "There were always people who used to camp out. It was a small percentage who did that. Now more people are forced to make that choice--to sleep outside, as opposed to being in here at our place or at a county-funded shelter like the Drake. I find people asking for a blanket who five years ago never would have dreamed of it."

It's a cool Friday afternoon in September, and while the rest of the city seems to be picking up paychecks, hitting the freeways early, or heading for happy hour, Wesley LaGrange is busy tracking a heckler walking over his bridge. Wesley's down in the shrubbery, sitting on the cardboard "carpet" in his drinking camp, one of three he's claimed for home along a stretch of train tracks in Northeast Minneapolis. A couple of cases' worth of empties are scattered around the ground, along with soiled bags from the Sally wagon, granola bar wrappers, crushed juice boxes, and cigarette butts.

Mark Wojahn

The heckler's oaths are lost in the hum of traffic behind him--unintelligible shouts drifting down into camp. Wesley curses under his breath, but he doesn't yell back. "That's just starting a fight," he figures. "The less conflict I got down here, the better off I am. See, you learn how to live out here. You learn that man's destination is self-preservation. I could have four or five pints in me, and I hear this boy yelling up there. I still leave it alone. Cause number one: I don't want him getting in my camp. Number two: If he rips me off, I got to go hunt him down and then we got a fight going. Number three: Then I go to jail. See?"

He pauses and flicks his lighter to a four-inch cigar stub he's been saving, then passes it to Larry, his friend and partner for the day. It's usually in his other camp, his "clean camp," that Wesley gets his share of harassment from the world above the railroad tracks. His clean camp consists of a pair of old couch cushions positioned around a scrubby poplar--it's more open, and thus more vulnerable. His year-round drinking camp is hidden beneath the undergrowth. There he's stashed away his sleeping bag, his duffel with spare clothes and alarm clock, and stray bags of food he's saved up for weekends when the Sally's not in service. The location of his third camp is a secret. He keeps it strictly in reserve for nights when the railroad patrol--the "bulls"--come by, handing out tickets and rousting out the men who camp along the line.

Wesley says he established his camps a couple of years ago after an altercation with his girlfriend. He owned a house back then, he claims, up in North Minneapolis. As he tells it, his girlfriend got drunk one night and stabbed him--in his neck, his arm and shoulder, and his stomach. "When I got stabbed, I went off," he recalls. "Man's destination is self preservation, right? I got stabbed five times. I went off. Grabbed the girl by the head. I didn't hit her with my hand. I screwed up. I worked in the foundry. I had steel-toed boots on and I popped her in the head with my boot. I said, 'You leave me alone.'

"Now, I ain't lying about this. It's all on file. Well, it ended up where they took me to Hennepin County Medical Center. And her, too. I hit her so hard with the boot--well, you get steel upside your head, your head's going to ball out. But I figured it was justified because, hey, she put a blade on me. She wanted to kill me. Doctors said if it had been an inch over she would have killed me.

"They packed me up. I'm getting ready to go, then I got this big old cop wrestling me up against the wall. Split me open on the wall. She and I, we both got arrested. This is what really gets me--a woman's rights in this state are better than a man's. When it comes to a man and a woman to get out of jail, it took me six hours, where it took her two hours. Is she better than me or something? Everybody says, 'Go to Texas, Wesley, go to Texas, 'cause it's all different. Woman ain't got no equal right down there. She's a slave bearing babies, that's it. If she gets out of her place, man puts her back in her place, and that's it.'" In Wesley's version of the story, after the legal troubles with his girlfriend and some unpaid child support caught up with him, he lit out for the railroad tracks.

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