Living on the streets of Minneapolis for a week

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

"I've been holed up here for a couple days...I'm not in a good mood at all.... Just found out my sister is going to have one of her lungs taken out.... I don't get paid until next week."

Other than a few back-and-forths between longtime tenants, the room remained strangely silent. But sleep would not come easy that night for me; the quiet soon gave way to a cacophony of snores and coughs and wheezes. As I drifted in and out of oblivion, I heard a weird ticking sound, like little cockroach legs tapping against the windows. And then I realized what it was: The drizzle outside had turned to sleet.

     

Day Two

"All right, gentlemen, up and at 'em!" The fluorescent lights flicked on; we slowly sat up in a daze. "It's 6:45. Y'all got 15 minutes!"

We filed speechless out into the still-dark morning and trudged our separate ways through the snow-rain shitmix that had blanketed the city.

I took sanctuary inside a Greyhound bus station just two blocks down the road. Soon, I was subject to the suspicious glares of security guards, which triggered my crippling fear of glaring security guards. To avoid their wrath, I pretended to read and wore a facial expression that said, "I'm just here to pick up my stepfather from Fargo." Which was no easy feat, mind you, considering my face muscles were often frozen stiff, and I have no stepfather from Fargo.

This would become my early-morning ritual.

At around 9 a.m., partially out of boredom but mostly due to hunger, I exited the station. It was only my second day, and—after deducting $24 to stay at the shelter for six nights—I had but 16 dollars to my name.

I pushed the thought away and headed east toward the heart of downtown. Near the corner of 10th Street and Nicollet Mall, I was accosted by a youngish white guy in dreads.

"Hey man, do you have 50 cents?" he asked.

"Do you have 50 cents?" I said.

He looked me over and an ah-ha look overcame his face. "Ohhhh," he said apologetically. "Good luck, brother."

"Yeah, you too."

The encounter reinforced the grim fact that, yes, I would have to panhandle for change at some point. Or go stealing. Or whoring. Later, I told myself. Not today.

Embracing procrastination, I loitered inside Target and basked in the warmth of the red bull's-eye. Before leaving, I purchased two packages of Oatmeal-to-Go, a sort of hybrid between oatmeal raisin cookies and Pop Tarts. I bought them because a) they're loaded with carbs, b) they were on sale and thus boasted a favorable calorie-to-dollar ratio, and c) they're geared toward people "on the go" (read: vagrants) and I am a slave to marketing.

They cost a cool $6.10 after taxes, which put me down to my last $9.90. Which meant I had burned through more than 75 percent of my fortune within just 16 hours of embarking on this hopeless journey.

As I sat on the west end of Block E gnawing on those sugar-coated hunks of cardboard, my stomach roaring in protest at every Cub Foods commercial beaming from the Target Center's digital display, a cold realization dawned: I was really, really bad at being homeless.

     

Day Three

If it weren't for the Salvation Army, I would have starved to death by week's end—or, at the very least, suffered a degree of hunger that would've compelled me to do something very weird.

Every evening at 6 p.m. sharp, the Salvation Army's Harbor Light branch, located on the same block as Catholic Charities on Currie Avenue, provides free meals to those in need.

I trudged off in that direction, passing ominous newsstands along the way—"Unemployment rate goes to 14-year high," warned the front page of the Star Tribune, which itself was laying off a good share of its workforce. I arrived to find a line stretching from the cafeteria doors to the back of the lobby and wrapping back around toward the entryway like a fish hook. Nearly 50 people stood waiting: twentysomethings with meth-weathered faces, obvious dunderheads, fidgety crackheads, and borderline schizophrenics ("I'm-a buildin' that Caesar gold!" one kept repeating.)

The grub inside consisted of goulash, mixed vegetables, doughy breadsticks, and doughnuts for dessert. It was decent, all things considered.

Back at the shelter, a clustered mass had gathered outside the entrance and was now pushing its way in through the barren vestibule.

"Get off me, man!" a voice sounded behind me. "You're in my space!"

"You want space, get your own fucking crib!" someone retorted.

Once inside, we were divided into two groups, each with its own line: "pay-for-stays" and "downstairs." The latter were those who were either unwilling or unable to foot the four-dollar fee. As their name implied, they slept downstairs, huddled together on the cafeteria floor.

We pay-for-stays queued up and performed the Breathalyzer test required for entry, then took the elevator up to bed.

There was one bed that remained empty. I decided that, as long as at least one bed remained vacant, I could remain here free of guilt, secure in the knowledge that I wasn't depriving a real homeless person of a place to stay. But as soon as she filled up, it would be time to move on.

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