LAST THURSDAY MORNING, friends and homeless advocates gathered at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis to say goodbye to their friend Westside, who died in his sleep on Sunday, September 9. His body was discovered by the small, tight-knit group that, as usual, had spent the night sleeping under the I-394 overpass near the Dunwoody Institute.
"I thought he was sleeping really late, so I kicked his boot to wake him up," a huge man sobbed as he spoke to the crowd of about 40. "When he didn't move, I checked his pulse and I knew he was dead. He was a really cool guy. Rest in peace."
Born in Los Angeles in 1947, Westside went from high school to Vietnam and often said the experience changed him forever. He hated enclosed spaces. He liked being outside. For more than a decade Minneapolis streets were his home. (See "Living Against the Law," March 8, 2000.)
The bulk of those years were spent at the side of his best friend, Chris. The two worked together at local food shelves and shelters and were known for sharing what little they had with others they met who had even less. Wiping away tears as she spoke, one young woman described Chris and Westside as the two people who meant the most to her in the whole world. "They are always trying to pound it into my head that I didn't belong on the streets," she said. "They always told me, 'You need to be someplace better, different.' They really helped me."
The group sang "Amazing Grace," one of Westside's favorite songs. One elderly man in a beige suit held onto the cross that hung from his neck as he stepped up to speak about his friend. "He was always a good friend when I had nothing. He bought me a cup of coffee and I bought him a cup of coffee back."
Social workers and homeless-outreach staff who had known Westside for years stood to recount how he'd taught them how to do their jobs. "I got into this business and I didn't know what I was doing," one woman said. "He taught me about what it was like to ride trains and live outside. He taught all of us. He cared about other people more than he cared about himself."
Shortly before his death, Westside had received a long-awaited settlement for injuries to his right arm, which he'd suffered when an angry visitor to the Catholic Charities food shelf on Currie Avenue pushed the slightly built man through the building's large front window. Chris, who was also working at the food shelf on that day, heard the glass shatter and called an ambulance for his bleeding friend. The two had planned to use the settlement money to take a trip out of town sometime this fall.
"We had a great relationship for 11 years and I'm gonna miss him," Chris said, smiling, when it was his turn to speak. "I remember we woke up one morning at four o'clock and a skunk was stealing his bread. He reached out and tried to get it back, and I told him, 'Westside, we work at a food shelf. We'll be eating in three hours.' But he wouldn't let go of that bread. He was stubborn like that. He was the most honest person about his life that I have ever known. I appreciate that so many people showed up here today, him being homeless and all. I'm sure he'd appreciate being the star."