Living on the streets of Minneapolis for a week

More than 9,000 Minnesotans are homeless. I decided to join them.

The unemployment rate is the highest it's been since 1994. More than a million jobs have been lost nationwide since the start of the year. Minnesota shed 7,500 posts last month alone. Thirty thousand more jobs are expected to vanish statewide during the next year. And foreclosure signs are dotting front yards like tombstones.

On any given night, more than 9,000 Minnesotans roam the streets homeless, according to a 2006 Wilder Foundation study. There hasn't been another one since (Wilder conducts its study every three years), but experts suggest that the figure may now be closer to 20,000...and growing.

Soup kitchens throughout the metro have seen demand double in the last four months. Local emergency shelters are filling up at a similar rate.

"Since mid-September, we've seen an increase in the number of people seeking emergency shelter at the Dorothy Day Center and Secure Waiting," says Becky Lentz, communications director for Catholic Charities. "It has yet to get really cold out and, frankly, some people are already sleeping on the floor."

There's only one way to get a personal handle on these implications: go homeless. I should note up front that the most psychologically taxing aspect of homelessness—the unknown, the abject lack of tangible guideposts—is impossible to replicate in the field. I don't claim to have experienced homelessness at its most hopeless, its most real, nor do I intend to trivialize the travails that go along with it. Nevertheless, it's hoped that this diary will provide a window into day-to-day affairs, maybe even practical advice for those who may soon find themselves battling the real thing.

Rules of the experiment: No credit or debit card, just the cash remaining in my wallet, which was $40. I left my cell phone, billfold, and keys with our editorial administrator, who had sworn to honor a strange request: Under no circumstances was he to relinquish my wares, no matter how much I complained or what kind of bizarre, hunger-induced threats I spat in his direction should he run into me on the street.

My possessions included a few changes of clothes, a colossal backpack containing a sleeping bag (to better weather the elements), three paperback novels (to better weather daytime boredom), and a bottle of Phillips rum (to better weather nighttime demons).

And so, as the Dow suffered yet another day of triple-digit losses, I ventured out.

 

Day One

There's nothing particularly scrumptious about unevenly heated, microwaved Ball Park hotdogs. But I savored every last bite of those mystery-meat sticks as if they were marbled-to-perfection filet mignons. It was just after 6 p.m., and I was bidding my cramped apartment adieu. After the door to my building clicked shut behind me, I stood in the dismal, early November drizzle for a minute and pondered my next move.

First order of business: find shelter.

I made my way from Loring Park toward downtown Minneapolis with a specific destination in mind: In a neglected, trash-strewn cranny of the city, on the corner of 10th Street and Currie Avenue, sits Catholic Charities.

Stepping inside the dimly lit, sullen interior, I approached the desk.

"Hey!" the young clerk boomed over his shoulder to his unseen partner. "Got a new one!"

A young, oval-faced employee wearing a black do-rag appeared and led me downstairs.

"History of mental illness?" he asked.

"No."

"Been homeless before?"

"No."

With that, he handed me my bedding, which consisted of beige sheets and a raggedy yellow blanket.

"All right, you're all set," he said. "Take the elevator to the second floor. Your bed is number 119."

The elevator doors opened to reveal a crowded, dismal slumber party. About 100 bunk beds stood in orderly rows between two and four feet apart. By the looks of it, some 80 percent of the grimy floor space was devoted to these double-decker nests, the only exception being a wide lane down the middle for walking and a clearing next to an assemblage of light-blue lockers. But at four dollars a night, I was in no position to argue.

As I ambled through the maze of dangling limbs, the stench forced me to breathe through my mouth. What was that goddamned smell? Its quality was vaguely familiar. But no, this was not tuna casserole, but rather the assembled aroma of hundreds of men who had not recently seen showers.

I climbed up to my assigned cradle—located on the far eastern edge, next to a full-length window—and gazed across this sea of humanity. A frail middle-ager, his black mustache thicker than his neck, pored over a large-print Wordfind. Next to him lay a bespectacled old goat, his red, wind-burned face buried in what appeared to be The Sound and the Fury. On the far end, a few residents bantered about Barack Obama's victory just 48 hours earlier.

"Shee-it, if he can survive all the crap they threw at him, he's in it for the long haul," said a gangly gent as he stuffed his worldly possessions into a two-by-two locker.

"Fuckin' A," agreed a voice from a nearby bed.

The Wordfind enthusiast abandoned his pen and flipped open his cell phone, a possession that indicated he was relatively new to this world. Snippets of his conversation corroborated this theory.

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