Living Against the Law

Public camping has been prohibited in Minneapolis for years. Trouble is, for Westside and Chris, Little John and Gnat, there's no place else like home.

Half of the sky is blue. The gray part is above us, and it's starting to snow in heavy clumps. The cold feels as if it could soak right to the bone. "Will somebody please tell me how it's snowing and half the sky is blue?" Gnat--she likes the nickname--holds her arms out to the sides and is spinning slowly in a circle and looking up. "Hey!" she yells, because no one answered. "Will somebody please explain how the hell it's snowing when there's blue sky right there?"

She turns her dark eyes on the four of us and giggles. Her slender body is lost inside the layers of clothes covered by an oversize army jacket. Her teeth are small, like a child's, and very white--a sure sign that she hasn't been homeless for long.

Gnat and her boyfriend Little John have just been kicked out of the cafeteria at the downtown Minneapolis Community College. They're usually welcome to hang out there and drink coffee or, if they have any money, get something to eat. But today there's been trouble with a security guard. "They just hate homeless people," Gnat says as she takes a sip of vodka, then shoves the bottle back inside her coat. Her eyes are glassy and her voice sounds like one long shriek. Little John leans in close and tells her that no one hates them; they'll just go back another day, maybe tomorrow. His teeth are chattering and his sandy hair hangs in wet ringlets.

Snow is piling up quickly on the stairs below us. Little John, a slight man in his 30s, shifts his weight around, trying to get comfortable on his crutches. He's not supposed to get his left foot wet. It has been more than a month since his toes were so badly frostbitten that doctors at the Hennepin County Medical Center's emergency room thought they might have to amputate. He managed to avoid surgery, but the process of scraping away dead skin and cleaning and rewrapping the foot in gauze will go on for some time. The injury is still painful, and infection has set in. "I gotta get inside," Little John tells the others, in his raspy smoker's voice.

Westside wants to head for the Triangle. He and his friend Chris just got off work and it's time to start drinking. The Triangle, secreted amid scrub trees at the intersection of several railroad tracks, is what they call their party camp. Chris and another guy left 20 minutes ago to buy booze. They're probably at camp already. Westside's shakes have slacked off since he had a few swallows of vodka, but he's not about to stand here drinking on the steps of the community college.

Little John mutters that he shouldn't go. He needs to keep his foot dry. Nobody's listening. Five other men have joined the group. Three are wearing "goon suits," green Air Force-issue flight suits. "They're ugly, but they're warm," a tall guy--we'll call him Paul--says. Jeff Parr, who for several years has worked as an advocate for homeless people in the Cities, gets the one-size-fits-all outfits from the local Veterans Administration. Westside won't wear them. Jeff thinks it's because they remind him of Vietnam.

Westside is insistent about the Triangle, promising Little John an extra pair of socks to keep his foot warm. It's clear that if Little John doesn't go along, he'll be on his own for the rest of the afternoon. So he lets Gnat help him down the stairs to Jeff's truck. Only a couple of people can fit up front, so the rest pile into the back. Gnat sits on her friend Backtrack's lap. "God, has anyone ever told you that you've got a bony butt?" he asks. She stands and wriggles around, but loses her balance and comes down hard on his thighs. "That better?" she laughs, with her head tossed back so that she's looking at everything upside down.

There is a big cardboard box in the truck bed. Gnat leans forward and digs around for a hat, but today Jeff has brought only "mittens." "I ain't wearin' those," Paul grumbles, even though his hands are the color of raw hamburger. Everyone is staring at the bunch of Easter-egg-colored oven mitts. Each pair is made of felted material, thin as a dishcloth, with sparkles embedded in it. They were donated by the Hennepin County's Access Unit, a division of adult services that provides outreach to the homeless.

It's a short ride. An awkward quiet has set in. Gnat and Paul stare intently out the camper windows, as if there were something new to see under the bridges where they've walked a thousand times.

The Triangle is home, in one way or another, to everyone here. It's their living room; the locations of their sleeping camps are kept secret. It's okay if the party camp gets busted up by the police, and it frequently does. They just don't want to be invaded by cops, or anyone else, in their sleep. For their part, Westside and Chris say they choose to live outside, that after ten years under the Minneapolis stars they don't feel right under a roof. But most of the others on this ride are camping and passing time at the Triangle because the "good" local shelters are full to capacity, and the "bad" ones are scary; they'd rather take a chance outside, they agree, than stay where they might get robbed or beat up.

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