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.

"It's very hard to get them to talk about people attacking them. No one wants to say 'I got beat up.' But there's a definite increase in violence--and I think it's tied to the loss of stability and a loss of the larger camps."

"It seems that the attitude is that [the city] wants people to go away--that if we treat them badly they'll go back to Chicago," says St. Stephen's Mary Gallini. "But the reality is, no one is going to go away. This is where people live." And while Gallini and other shelter providers expect the police sweeps to slow down when winter comes--police, the reasoning goes, won't slog through knee-deep snow--they don't believe the camps will magically empty out with the advent of cold weather.

In the past, October 15 marked the date when Hennepin County shelters switched to their "winter policy," under which no one who asked for shelter could be turned away. Gallini says she and other members of the Shelter Providers Action Association, a recently formed local coalition, have been lobbying the county to come up with some sort of increased shelter for this winter, but so far to no avail; instead, they will spend October 15 holding a city-wide "summit" on homelessness at the downtown United Way Building.

Mark Wojahn

"Shelter is not the politically correct thing to talk about right now," Gallini acknowledges. "People go, 'Oh, that's an '80s thing.' But in the '80s we didn't have 1,000 people sleeping outside every night."

It's getting on toward 4:00 in the afternoon. Time to make the 4:30 Sally stop. Wesley and Larry toss a couple beers into a bag and head down the rails.

A typical day, Wesley says, is punctuated by the Salvation Army truck. For several years it has delivered food, medical supplies, blankets--the basics--every weekday to around 150 people, working as a critical link between the men in the camps and provisions that keep them from starving and freezing in the woods.

Today, though, Wesley and Larry are the only show-ups at the Sally stop. Everyone else, it seems, is staying under cover on "CODEFOR Friday." (Rumor in the camps is, that's the day when the MPD trains its computer-aided crime prevention effort on their territory; Lubinski says there's no stepped-up enforcement on Friday.) The Sally hands out bags containing two bologna sandwiches, chips, broth ("Good for alcoholics," Wesley says. "Lots of salt.") and a juice box. Larry carefully takes his sandwiches apart. He tears up two slices of bread into little pieces and scatters them at his feet for the birds.

Then he slaps the other two halves of his sandwiches together and takes a bite. After they've eaten, Wesley and Larry put another mile on their boots walking downstream to the "six flags," a spot along the redesigned jogging path on the downtown riverfront favored by Wesley because it's out of view from the street. They find a place to sit down on a concrete buttress along the river. There's already someone drinking at the spot. "Call me Thor," he says as they take their places.

Thor offers beers and lights up a joint. "I just got out of prison," he tells them, "and found that I'd been thrown out of my apartment while I was locked up. Eighteen months I was in jail and then I was acquitted. Can you believe that? Come out, and now I got no place to live." Thor removes his tennis shoes and curls his toes, with his feet extended straight out in front of him.

The drink warms and loosens up the men. The river slips by in front of them as night comes on. Thor asks if anyone's read Plato or Aristotle while he hands out the last of his beer. Larry vomits his bologna sandwich into the river. Wesley says "I grew up in Vietnam, man," and Thor comes back with, "Oh, who gives a fuck? Who gives a fuck? You're living in the past. That was yesterday. What are you doing today?" Larry drops his pants and moons a pleasure boat drifting by on the water. Someone creeps up behind and asks to buy a beer. Wesley sells the one Thor gave him, for two dollars.

"I've got a .45-caliber Blackhawk back at camp," Wesley announces then to his assembled company. "When people start talking shit to me I say 'Hey, you don't want to mess with me.' I got permits to carry this stuff. I can do whatever I want. You want a little 'Nam on your ass? Come on. I'll give it to you straight."

Thor keeps up: "I got a 9 mm right here in my bag." A pause. "No, I'm just shitting you." Larry opens Thor's bag and shakes out the items: a shirt, a pair of pants, a manila envelope stuffed with papers, an inmate complaint form. No gun. Larry buttons on the shirt, a red plaid.

Wesley offers to sell Thor his pocket radio for five bucks toward a 12-pack. Thor hands over the money. A few minutes later, Thor's forgotten the radio. Wesley pockets it, and the three men rise and walk down river, across the bridge, and up to Surdyk's liquor store. The place is busy, but everyone shuns the men. Conversations fall silent in the aisles. One customer touches his wallet through his pants, an automatic gesture provoked by the sight of the drunken threesome.

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