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.

"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.

It was about this time that I began to discern a sharp divide between my pay-for-stay roommates. Put simply, there were those who were homeless more or less by choice and those who were homeless by circumstance.

Members of the former group generally regard normal people the same way normal people regard circus animals—they eat well and sleep safe, sure, but is parading around with a unicycle up your ass really worth the peace of mind?

There was a Zen-like old man known to all as "Cowboy" who fit this description. He was always reading and had a library of books stashed under his mattress. Every so often, someone would approach Cowboy to borrow or return a book, or to ask for his sage advice. Despite being a dusty old cracker with a honky-tonk nickname, he appeared to be a favorite among the black guys.

But these alleged free spirits were rarities; the majority of my roommates were creatures of circumstance. The youngest of these unfortunates—those under 30, say—carried with them a burdensome chip on their shoulder that, to be honest, rendered them off-puttingly irascible. They were fully prepared to quarrel like injured badgers at any moment to protect what little they had, which is to say their pride.

Case in point: After much commotion and yelling outside the window, two young guys emerged from the elevator. One, a blond kid with an out-of-place clean-shaven look, was livid at a perceived injustice that befell him on the street below not 10 minutes earlier.

"Fuck that, I don't play that shit," he growled. "I'm Army-trained. Y'talk to me like that and I'll put you to the ground like that. Fuck that motherfucker. I'm trained to kill!"

"Let's be real, though, dog," scolded his partner from across the room. "You didn't have that attitude when you was down there. I seen you."

Blondie remained adamant that "in a one-and-one situation," he was virtually invincible, a fact he repeated over and over. Finally, he piped down and, within 15 minutes, began snoring like a sedated 73-year-old in a heated Lay-Z-Boy, his weary mind no doubt soothed in the knowledge that his machismo had been convincingly asserted.

Day Four

By the fourth day, the insufficient sleep sessions were beginning to take their toll on my stamina. I had been wandering the city like a baffled ghost, the incessantly dreary weather compounding my fatigue. As I stepped out of the shelter, it became clear that I had some serious catching up to do in the REM department.

Fortunately, it was Sunday.

I lurched southeast down Hennepin toward the iconic St. Mary's Basilica. It seemed as good a place to snooze as any. Also: free bread and wine.

Stepping inside the cavernous confines, I set up shop in a corner in the very last row. By this time, my haggardness had reached a point where I looked the part of a down-and-out "bum," if you will excuse the pejorative. I gathered this fact not from a glance into a mirror, but from the mouth-agape expression of a child peering over his mother's shoulder. Feeling like a monster, I avoided his stare.

Mass began. As the white-haired priest drooled like a vampire over bodies, blood, and life everlasting, I leaned forward and rested my forearm on the backrest of the pew in front of me, lay my head on my coat-cushioned arm, and drifted into blissful slumber. So tired was I that I slept through Holy Communion. Which is probably for the better, karma-wise.

Then it was back to downtown. The time had come to swallow my pride (a terrific chaser for shitty rum, incidentally) and panhandle. Yes, indeed. I would manhandle this panhandle business.

After buying a Sharpie—a brutal $1.10 setback—and purloining an empty Pizza Hut Tuscany pasta box, I was ready. But staring at the grease-stained cardboard, I was overcome with a crippling case of writer's block. "Spare change, please." No. Too dull and demanding. "Will work for food." Too unoriginal. "Why lie? Need a beer." Unoriginal and obnoxious. Besides, I still had plenty of rum left.

I decided to avoid being too cute, and just keep it simple and honest: "Hungry. Appreciative of anything." I paused and examined my handiwork. Something was missing. It needed a kicker. Feeling like somewhat of a phony given how I'd spent that morning, I sheepishly scribbled "God Bless" for a tagline.

There. It was settled. How could you not give me money? Soon I'd be backstroking through coinage like a rum-drunk Scrooge McDuck.

I set up shop on Eighth Street and Nicollet Mall just outside Macy's. The cardboard had some folds and flaps on it, so I was able to prop it up, hands-free. I set a Starbucks paper cup next to it, leaned back against the building, and did my best to look gracious and nonthreatening.

Seventy-six people strode past before a stout woman in her 40s hesitated before me, dug in her pocket, and tucked a folded one-dollar bill into my cup. I was so surprised by the donation, I almost jumped to my feet and hugged the poor woman. She seemed a little startled at my enthusiasm and, seeing this, I relented.

The 280th passerby, a sharp-dressed lady in large-frame glasses, bestowed upon me three quarters, two dimes, and a penny. I kept my cool this time, and thanked her in subdued tones. Inexplicably, she actually apologized for being unable to spare more.

"I could've sworn I had more!" she said. "Well, wait a sec." She dug through her purse. Nothing. "Y'know, I'm just so, so sorry!"

Now I just felt like an asshole.

During the course of that butt-numbing hour, a total of 511 people marched past. Few dropped notice, let alone coin.

My last benefactor was passerby number 391.

"Would you like a soda, maybe?" A dark-haired woman walking with her husband extended a red can in my direction. I had evidently stumbled onto the set of an "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" commercial.

I thanked the couple, then scurried back inside the skyway to enjoy my prize. The carbonated syrup supplied a much-needed second wind.

     

Day Five

"Sir, are you sleeping?"

"Huh? What? No, sir."

I was on the second floor of a downtown Barnes & Noble, perched in one of four reading chairs. Two seats to my left was a gangly fellow drifter, his full black beard winter-ready, enduring an awkward interrogation at the hands of a round-shouldered security guard.

"You're telling me you weren't sleeping?"

"Just reading, sir." He held up his paperback as evidence.

"All right," said the officer. "But if I catch you sleepin', you're outta here. Understand me?

"Yessuh."

It was that time of year. When the weather grows unbearable, those lacking daytime shelter take to the skyways and bookshops and libraries to wile away the day in warmth and literary distraction.

Proprietors, of course, are all too aware of this. Understandably, they take measures to reserve creature comforts for paying customers—or at least potential customers—hence the crackdown on us napping, penniless vagrants.

Not 20 minutes later, the oafish security guard returned to find his prey fully shut-eyed, the book unopened on his lap.

"All right, let's go," he said. "Come on. Up you go. What'd I tell ya?"

The dazed vagabond rose to his feet and uttered not a word of protest. He slinked downstairs, the officer trailing behind. The perfunctory manner in which this was carried out suggested this was something of a reoccurring episode.

In witnessing this, I learned a valuable lesson in the art of bookstore stealth snoozing. Put bluntly, the sleepy gentleman had erred in his choice of texts. His thick paperback—reckon it was Dune—was simply too unwieldy to keep open while unconscious. Whenever the book achieved shut-tight equilibrium, the security guard knew to pounce.

The secret, I discovered, is to select a book that can remain open of its own volition. Large, flat hardcovers—big on surface area, low on volume—are best suited to the task. Which is why, for the next three days, I would grow quite intimate with The World's Best Sailboats Vol. I by Ferenc Mate. With this beast on my lap and my stocking cap pulled over my eyes, I could doze with impunity. Moreover, I had done my homework. In the event of questioning, I was wholly prepared to school the security guard on the subtleties of Alden yachts and Baltic yachts, and explain the nuanced differences in style between Shannon Boat Co. and Sam L. Morse Co., and thus retain my peace—for whoever heard of an unwashed vagrant independently versed in yacht minutiae? ("Of course I'm reading, officer! Or at least I was until you interrupted me!") This little flight of cunning earned me hours of serene naptime.

Upon returning to the shelter, I was met with a damning sight. The previously solitary empty bed at the far end of the room had an occupant. This would be my last night under a roof.

Worse, tomorrow night's forecast called for snow.

     

Day Six

The early-evening rush-hour traffic whooshed 30 feet below my frozen-to-the-marrow toes. I stood on a five-foot-wide median on Olson Memorial Highway just off Lyndale Avenue holding my sad little sign and my sad little cup.

As any driver who's ever been stuck at a red light mere feet from a beggar can attest, a subtle awkwardness lingers in the air like a pesky fart.

This awkwardness is, I now discovered, mutual. Standing there, you're on full display. You might as well be on stage. Chalk it up to self-consciousness or paranoia, but you can't help but think you're being sized up, that contained in each vehicle whizzing by is a value judgment on your life. The whirring tires seem to whisper, "Get a job."

Some passengers snuck sympathetic looks in my direction, which, in its own way, was more uncomfortable than the glances of disdain. The only thing that stings worse than contempt is pity.

Also: It's important to remain at least somewhat still. Many drivers will stare straight ahead and tightly grip the steering wheel as if you might, at any moment, sprint toward the car, dive through the windshield, and bite off half their face. Best not to fan those fears with herky-jerky spasms.

Despite these psychological tribulations, this method is well worth it if you're truly in a bind: It's much more efficient than the sitting-on-a-street-corner mode of attack, as I'd soon discover.

Barely 15 minutes had elapsed before a maroon Dodge Intrepid honked its horn down the line, an arm extending out of the rolled-down window and waving a dollar bill. I shuffled up and accepted the charity from a woman in her 30s. As I trudged back to my post (a "No Turn" sign), another window opened from which a curvy woman in a Winnie the Pooh sweater offered two—two!—dollar bills.

A pattern was emerging. For whatever reason—perhaps having something to do with their superiorly developed nurturing instinct—middle-aged women were my best marks. Not a single male had been moved by my faux plight.

An exception to this rule rolled up to the stoplight 20 minutes later in a white Jeep. The driver, a mustached Latino fellow, added yet another dollar bill to my cup.

Five minutes later came yet another donor, a woman again. "Would you like some Pringles?" She held out a small, travel-sized can.

"Yes, thanks!" I said.

"Have a good one," she chirped, which I thought was a pretty passive-aggressive thing to say to a shivering pauper, even a fraudulent one, but I certainly wasn't going to call her on it, being indebted to her as I was for the Pringles.

At that point, I called it quits. In less than an hour, I had "earned" four dollars and a snack to boot—enough, I reckoned, to get me through the next day. It was time to find a place to crash.

I plodded south on Lyndale through the freezing drizzle, my eyes searching for what in hindsight was an improbable ideal, the criteria being 1) sheltered from rain/snow, 2) safe from criminals, and 3) safe from cops. (Granted, two and three would be hard to reconcile.)

The CenterPoint Energy power plant, tucked between Lyndale and I-394, seemed promising. I hiked along the premises and came to an open double gate leading toward the underbelly of I-394 and myriad on/off ramps. In the dim light, I could make out dozens of immense pillars supporting the byways above. The collected corpses of fallen streetlights lay strewn in the uncut, browning grass on the far side. By the looks of it, I was far from the first person to take up residence under this overpass. Scattered along the ground were a pair of discarded loafers, a snow-sprinkled stuffed dolphin, and a trucker hat stomped into the muddy earth. On a flat surface atop the slanted slab ascending to the freeway lay a frayed mattress.

For the time being, though, I was alone.

I came to a pillar and dropped my pack to the ground. A pile of gravel had been dumped around the column's base. This would be my bed for the night: The gravel was dry, fine, and, with a few layers of thick clothing between us, promised to be reasonably comfortable. Like a nesting animal, I arranged the gravel to even out the incline. I crawled into my sleeping bag as innumerable tires went thump-thump directly above, unpacked the bottle of rum, and took a pull or three. It set my empty stomach ablaze.

     

Day Seven

The early-morning hours under that overpass were nothing short of hellish. Not necessarily because of the cold or the paranoid, scared-shitless certitude that I'd be robbed and/or mutilated in my sleep (though these factors certainly didn't help). No. What made the morning so damn ghastly was a recurring nightmare.

It took place back at the shelter, but it wasn't really the shelter. The dream had morphed it into something akin to a dank cellar, its size and scope ratcheted up to absurdity—it was, in fact, an entire endless field of bunk beds, stretching out beyond the horizon like the crosses of a World War II cemetery. Something just outside the walls had us all up in arms and flailing about. Just what, exactly, I don't know—a monster, you could say, only it wasn't so tangible or childish as a bogeyman; some kind of amorphous beast, doom distilled, roaring and clawing and braying, reeking of carrion, and—oh, God, why?!—everybody slipping on their blankets and leaping over fluorescent bonfires trying to escape. There was Cowboy hurling his books (I think they were books) out the window at the beast, emitting inhuman shrieks as he did so. He turned to me and said, "Throw me some fever!" and I didn't know in the slightest what he meant, but I threw him some fever anyway—as much as I could spare, that is—and then walls started crumbling and that's the last I saw of Cowboy. The last image I recall was a green hot air balloon, either just landing or about to take off, in the middle of the field-cellar, and all of us swarming around it. And the screaming.

I spent the late morning in the Barnes & Noble's adjoining Starbucks, utterly bloodshot, trying to ignore the humming no one else seemed to hear. Patrons chatted idly or read newspapers or scribbled absently, smug in their monsterless world, as if —

But let's stop the nonsense right here and stick to the material facts: My week of artificial homelessness was over, and I had gotten off easy compared to the real thing experienced by hundreds of thousands each and every day. Even so, when I finally arrived home later that day, food had never tasted better, a shower had never felt so refreshing, and my bed had never been warmer.

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