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.

Lately, Wesley goes on, the occasional urge hits him to find an apartment and come in off the streets. But when he's tried, he hasn't had much luck: "I had 3,000 bucks. So I go and I apply for a spot in a building. I pay $30 for an application fee, which is nonrefundable. That knocks me down to $2,970, right? Then you figure first, last month's rent plus the damage deposit. Well, then they come back--'Your references ain't good enough.' Now you burned 30 bucks. It's all these high-tech idiots around here that think they're better than us that're the problem."

The other problem for camp tramps this summer has been cops. Outdoor camping has been illegal in Minneapolis for decades, but until recently police didn't go out of their way to enforce the law as long as the camps stayed out of sight. And in a city whose old industrial areas, overgrown railroad embankments, river bluffs, and freeway overhangs have been popular since the hobo days, staying out of sight was rarely a problem for tramps who couldn't or wouldn't take advantage of the shelters.

All that has changed now. Following the modifications in shelter policy and welfare law, a new crowd--people who wouldn't sleep outdoors if there were another option, and who lack the veterans' savvy--made the camps more conspicuous and more numerous, attracting attention from nearby businesses and police. Late this spring, the Minneapolis Police Department launched concentrated sweeps designed to clear the river banks of vagrants. Throughout the summer, police from the downtown command have walked the length of the river every couple of weeks, using the no-camping ordinance as reason to tear down established camps. "They took this war on poverty a little too far," says a man who's come up from the riverfront to one of the Sally stops. "They're going through people's property, throwing it in the river, burning it. They're attacking the camps."

Mary Erpelding, a streetworker with Hennepin County's mental-health access unit, concurs: "In the past, they've frequently had that kind of move during the Aquatennial, or around State Fair time--maybe they want to clear space for tourists to camp. But this year it went on all summer. I just saw a woman today--everything in the camp she was in got thrown into the river, things got ripped apart, their IDs got taken. And these are the only possessions that people have. They will have to be replaced--you'll have to go down and get or find or steal another bag, another backpack. And they get harassed, screamed and yelled at. I'm not sure this is a job that the police are in love with--but it's a city thing."

Sharon Lubinski, the inspector in charge of the MPD's downtown command, says that police do pull apart the makeshift shelters, but denies that anyone's belongings are taken. The MPD's policy is justified, she says, by the increase in violence on the river. The number of assaults and homicides is on the rise in the camps, she points out, and so are the exposure deaths that occur every winter. "The life they live is not a safe one," she says, stressing that the department doesn't keep separate statistics on crime that occurs in and around the camps. When violence in those areas does occur, she adds, "it's typically not where we patrol, [so] it's usually extreme because there's nobody there to stop it. One of our murders this year was committed under a bridge with a rock."

The logic behind this summer's frequent police sweeps, Lubinski says, is to move river-dwellers into the shelter system by force. "If they're in a shelter and someone's getting assaulted or raped, at least you have some staff to intervene. They should be in the shelters. That's going to be more safe."

Never mind that most of the campers have been made ineligible for shelter in the last few years, and that there is no room left at safe waiting. What's happened instead, agree social service workers who keep track of camp life, is that the sweeps have simply driven Minneapolis's homeless population deeper underground and further into the woods. This year, people on the river have taken to camping in groups of only two or three--making it easier to avoid police raids and stay mobile, to move camp every night if necessary, heading further upstream for cover.

Until as recently as last year, it wasn't difficult to find established camps of a dozen people who'd gathered around a leader or a good cook; they could last, outreach worker Patrick Wood says, a year or two before breaking up. More than 100 people at a time lived in the old General Mills grain elevator two winters ago, where temperatures kept steady enough to survive and the elements could be shut out. But the city tore the elevator down this year after a series of murders, rapes, and assaults took place there in 1997.

Wood believes that the MPD sweeps may actually be effecting an increase in camp violence. "When you lose the permanent encampments," he says, "you lose stability in the lives of homeless folks. You lose even a marginal sense of belonging. With that comes increasing isolation. People aren't watching out for one another. I suspect that breaking up of larger camps has made people more vulnerable to attacks from outside of the homeless community." Like others inside and outside the camps, Wood is convinced that homeless men have become targets for skinheads, gangsters, and "kids from the suburbs." He admits there is no documentation of such a trend besides the widespread rumors in the camps.

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