"A lot of people think that the youth can't do much in this world, that we can't organize something big, you know?"
The Punisher is sitting with a couple of friends in an office at the homeless youth drop-in center Project OffStreets, talking about their recent art project. Nobody's interrupting.
"So when something big like this comes along, they decide to look at it as something small. But this is something big. This is something the homeless youth have. And I'm sure all of us here are proud of it, because we started a movement."
What he's describing began as something very small, actually: pocket-sized sculptures. Two months ago, a bunch of young people at OffStreets decided to make clay versions of themselves. "Self portraits" was what artist Suzy Greenberg called the pieces, offering her expertise to the group. But the concept was loose: One girl made a naked female torso with a big belly button and no head. Another made a snail. The Punisher, who is tall and bulky in his skull-and-crossbones hoodie, made a tiny dog.
They ended up with 40 miniatures in all, then crafted molds for each one and cast hundreds of copies: one for each of the estimated 500 to 600 minors who don't have a place to stay or adult accompaniment on any given night in Minnesota.
Last month, the little white statues began turning up everywhere, like ghosts haunting the places where the kids had been. They appeared mysteriously on fast-food counters, among arcade games, between the heads of parking meters. On the back of each piece was a clue to their purpose: a sticker reading www.kultureklub.org, the web address of the organization that brought together Greenberg and the youth at OffStreets.
"What we're hoping," says the Punisher, "is that people go to that website and learn more about why we're actually doing this."
Run by part-time employees out of YouthLink/Project OffStreets at 41 N. 12th St. in downtown Minneapolis, Kulture Klub has been doing projects like this for 12 years. Nobody in the room has been here that long, including Michael Hoyt, the current director of Kulture Klub, who looks a little like a Hawaiian surfer and seems about 10 years older than the Punisher. Joshua and Lyle, the other two guys in the room, are about the same age as the Punisher, who says he just turned 19 and has been coming to the rec center since he was 17.
"It's a drop-in center, but they also offer services," he says. "They hook you up with a case manager, get you clothes and shoes and bus cards. Then they have groups like Out Group and Kulture Klub and a fishing group. I hope we can go fishing tomorrow, Mikey."
"Well, the season opener isn't until next weekend," says Hoyt, the voice of adult responsibility.
"We can fish in Loring Park for pan fish," the Punisher says.
"Fishing," says Josh, "is one of the most relaxing things I can do."
With his straight blond hair and oversized jersey, Josh seems slightly younger than the others. His favorite sculpture, he says, is "the naked lady." He likes to skateboard, and has a grandma he visits in a smaller town. The pieces he made were a snowboarder and a cow's head. ("That was you?" asks Punisher.)
Lyle, whose heritage is part Lakota, is quieter than the other two. He made a playing-card spade surrounded by swirls of energy.
"That's me," he says. "I'm lucky."
"Lately," says Punisher, "I think I've been lucky, Josh has been lucky, Lyle's been lucky. We've all been lucky with our stuff going on."
"The spade has been with me," says Lyle, nodding. "Back in the day, it wasn't that lucky, because I joined a gang, and was doing drugs. I got shot in both legs, under the kneecaps. Now that I look back, I just laugh about it."
All three left bad situations at home when they were younger. Lyle stays with relatives now, having worked out the kind of system where he leaves clothes here, takes showers there, stores things over here. Josh and the Punisher both live at the Hope Street youth shelter in south Minneapolis. When I ask if they know firsthand what it's like to live on the street, they all say yes without hesitation.
"I slept outside many, many times," says the Punisher, "Many times over the winter, I slept outside in the freezing cold. Out on Nicollet Mall in the bus shelters. Or I tried to stay awake all night at a hotel. That's the only way anyone would let you sit there, is if you could stay awake all night. But when you're sitting in a chair, dog-tired, and it's warm, you're going to want to fall asleep. Then they kick you out. I remember one night where I only had on these sweatpants right here, in fact, and a hooded sweatshirt. I didn't have no gloves, no hat, no nothing. I was cold. Nobody would let me in to sit anywhere, stand anywhere, nothing."
The silicone casting process is simple. You take two separate bottles of clear liquid, pour each into the mold at the same time, then let the chemicals combine. In a few minutes, the liquid begins to cloud and turns opaque.
The results look fragile, like baked dough, but the statues are amazingly durable. They bounce without scuffing whenever Josh or the Punisher drops one. Minutes after leaving OffStreets, the artists distribute the sculptures around downtown, with Michael Hoyt in tow. (Lyle decides to hang back at OffStreets, working on the computer.) Josh clacks away on his skateboard, which he tucks under his arm when we reach Nicollet Mall.
"It sucks, man, you can't skate on this street," he says.
"We used to come down here," says Hoyt, "when I was 15, 16, and it would just be skateboards everywhere. You'd meet up with gangs of kids and ride all day long."
Josh runs across the street to put a skateboard statue on the giant metal bird sculpture on the Mall. The Punisher puts a snail on a bus stop. Slowly, the pieces begin to form a breadcrumb trail back to OffStreets--a snowboarder on a pay phone, a scary head on a table at the News Room bar, a ghost on the sidewalk. Josh checks on a statue that looks like a bunny, left inside a hole in a brick wall during a previous distribution run. "It's still there," he says.
I ask the Punisher what he means about his changing luck. He mentions a cooking class he and Josh just finished, and offers his recipe for steak tips. Tonight, the crew will eat in style at Buca, celebrating the completion of the sculpture project with Suzy Greenberg, whose residency has come to an end. Hoyt says it's important to give these kids a sense of closure, which they lack in their experience, with adults coming in and out of their lives. Clients at the center are "aged out" when they turn 20, he says.
Crossing First Avenue, Josh circles the Punisher on his skateboard. When both of them are out of earshot, Hoyt says, "These two and Lyle, they watch out for each other. They run in packs, but just in a protective way, not like a gang. They got each other's backs."
No youth shelters are left in downtown Minneapolis. "There used to be one, House of Charity," says Hoyt. "Around the turn of the year, in December, they lost funding for their youth-designated beds, so they had to close those rooms down. Funding just got really difficult this past year." (In Duluth, I find out later, the Renaissance youth shelter is scrambling to replace recently cut state and federal funding.)
"There's a lot of adult shelters," Hoyt continues. "But I don't know..." He raises his voice so that Josh and the Punisher can hear him. "How do you guys feel about places like Harbor Light?" He's referring to the Salvation Army's downtown shelter.
"Harbor Light, yeah, I stayed there once," says Josh.
"What did you think of it?" says Hoyt.
"People got into fights for the stupidest things over there."
Josh skates ahead, and Hoyt points to some buildings turning red in the late afternoon. "It's actually right over there, right behind that parking ramp," he says. "Sometimes at night when we're driving youth around that don't have a place a stay, we'll hit some of the adult shelters, when all of the youth shelters are filled up. If we go on an outing, I don't bring youth that haven't secured a place to stay. But sometimes they slip in, and then at 10 or 11 at night they're like, 'I don't have a place to stay.'
"Then you're scrambling and driving around. But I'd rather drop a kid off at Hard Times Cafe than drop him off at Harbor Light sometimes. Depends on how secure I think they're going to be. 'Cause some of them are vulnerable. I think there's a lot of adults that would prey on them."
When we get back to OffStreets, the group walks into the big, all-purpose front room, which is crowded with young people relaxing on couches near a fish tank and in a row of lunch tables with hot cafeteria food.
After Hoyt rounds up a few other participants in the sculpture program, we all head out for dinner and eat too much ravioli. I take a group portrait with a disposable camera afterward, and everyone says their goodbyes--except Josh and the Punisher, who have challenged each other to a game of pool back at Hope Street. They head off together to catch the bus, Josh back on skateboard.
Early the next morning, the following sculptures have been blown, or thrown, into the gutter or the street: the cow's head, an anguished face with its tongue sticking out, and a heart with angel wings. But the bunny is still there sitting in his brick wall, sheltered from harm.