Ground Zero

Peter walks in not long after the paramedics have vanished with the guy who threw up in the waste-paper basket. He's hungry for details, but knows better than to ask. "Did they ever find his bag?" he ventures. "No," Mary E says, barely looking up from her computer. She's in the middle of a game of Hearts. "Figures." He falls into the roller chair and folds his arms on the desk. "Mary E, I need help. I went back to work, but I'm not getting paid until Friday. I need to get out of here. I need one of those emergency checks."

Mary E gives him a sidelong glance. "Well, Peter, I'll just cut you one. How much do you need?"

"What can you afford?"

"Oh," she ponders, "two, three hundred?"

"That sounds good. Can I have it tomorrow?"

"Wednesday, maybe. It has to go downtown first."

"Thanks, Mary! You're doing the work of the angels."

"Yeah," she mutters, her eyes still on the screen.

The transaction is entirely deadpan. It appears they've played this game millions of times before--perhaps not here and not with each other, but often enough for the routines to have worn in just right. Often enough so they both know the joke is on them. On Currie Avenue, this is how you keep your sanity.

The thing to know about Currie is that it's not much of an avenue. It's a one-block stretch of pavement left hanging when they put in I-394 from Target Center to Minnetonka; the only street leading to it is a one-way coming from the garbage incinerator. You're very unlikely to end up here by accident.

And it's no accident that Currie has become what it is. "Little Calcutta" is one name that circulates. "Bowery North" another. Or you could just call it "The Zone." The name doesn't matter, since few people outside this place even suspect it exists.

Yet its appearance was, in a way, inevitable. Somewhere there had to be a catch basin, a holding tank, a place for those who can't or won't or may not go anywhere else. Currie is home to the Salvation Army Harbor Lights Center, the last shelter in town to take the drunk, the sick, and the crazy; and to a human depot called the Hennepin County Safe Waiting Area. It also has abandoned doorways, grassy patches with cut fences, and freeway embankments where the cops turn a blind eye to overnight camping. On a good night, Mary E estimates, something like 1,000 people sleep on and around Currie, more than in a lot of outstate towns.

Mary E's full name is Mary Erpelding, but she doesn't use it much. She works for Hennepin County's Access Unit. In theory her job is to find homeless people who qualify for mental-health services. In practice she's confessor, nurse, cop, jester, palace guard, teacher, spy, and just about everything else you could imagine a short, 54-year-old woman with bleached hair and a voice of many registers to be. She has a desk downtown, but most of her time is spent around Currie. If you're going to spend any amount of time on the avenue, you'll have to deal with Mary E.

At 7p.m. on a velvety July evening, Currie is just hitting its stride. Someone has brought a plastic football, and the pavement vibrates with 20-year-old feet in running shoes while an old guy with a cane officiates. A woman in a polka-dotted shirt mooches a Kool from the guy next to her.

Mary E is digging through the trunk of her Saturn, retrieving the supplies for the rest of the evening. There's a bag of pretzels, bait to attract visitors to her makeshift office; a green plastic container full of pills for her seizures; a family-size bottle of liquid soap. The county, Mary E explains, won't allow soap in the showers in Safe Waiting, because that would make it too much like a shelter. So the staff has taken to bringing in these bottles and setting them out with a pile of Dixie cups.

Safe Waiting is one of those Orwellian names, kind of like the Peacekeeper missile. What it suggests is a bus depot, a departure hall, a place to hang out on the way to something else. What it is is the end of the road. Hennepin County created Safe Waiting two years ago, when it decided to deny shelter to people without children, a disability, or some other special qualification. The original idea was for a space with nothing but chairs, lest anyone get comfortable. Then Catholic Charities took over the program and moved it to a former soup kitchen on Currie. Instead of chairs they now hand out rubber mats, about two inches thick and a foot too short for an adult.  

Like everything else on Currie, Safe Waiting has a hierarchy. People who can prove they're working get to lay their mat in the upstairs hall; it fits 125 and is full most every night by 9. The downstairs fits as many again, and an additional dozen--"the drunk and the violent," Mary E flatly explains--are kept in the lobby. If you've never seen a refugee camp, Safe Waiting by about midnight is a pretty good approximation.

But right now, the lobby--baby-blue and white vinyl tile, framed art posters, and signs like "If You Are Caught Hiding Things in the Ceiling, You Will Be Put Out for a Week"--is quiet. A couple of guys have unrolled their sleeping bags in the nook by the elevator (any space in a corner is precious) and the security guards are huddled around a pile of ginseng tea bags. One of them turns to Mary E. "This guy needs to see you," he says, pointing at a large, balding, tattooed man in clean jeans and a polo shirt. "His feet are really bad."

Thomas just came from the ER, where they peeled off his bloody shoes and wrapped his feet in about two inches of gauze. In fits and starts, he relates a tale of woe that involves him losing his house and his Harley after getting extradited to Wisconsin on an ancient drug offense. He claims to be an engineer. Says he last worked at the Convention Center.

Mary E is unfazed. "Where did you sleep last night?"

"A vacant house. I..."

She interrupts. "Have you tried applying for General Assistance?"

"No. Never thought I'd qualify because I was healthy. Until now." He looks at his feet. "I've only been back in town two weeks."

Mary E heads for the counter to make a phone call. "I vouchered you into Harbor Lights," she announces a moment later. "You can stay for a week. But you have to see the nurse in the morning, or I'll come to kick you out. Better yet, I'll come and step on your toes."

He's not smiling. "I've never been in a shelter before." Mary shrugs. "Remember, you've got no friends.

"You should know," she counsels, "there's a lot of mentally ill in there. I might suggest that you be accepting of that."

"Anybody dangerous?" he wants to know.

"Just me," she says with an air of great seriousness. "But I'm much better now that I got my pills."

"Wasn't that a good story?" Mary E beams at me on the way to her office. "You like that story?" Does it matter to her if it's true, I ask back. "No. Not really. I'm entertained by stories."

She leans over with a fierce expression. "Sometimes I just lose it, and I go: What do you want?" Her finger jabs at me. "Just give me a little bit of truth. I know you know what I want you to say, what your mother wanted you to say. Don't give me that. Tell me, 'I want to do what I've been doing. I want my kids back. I want to drink. I never want to see a social worker ever again in my life.' Whatever." The jabbing stops. "But people know I pay for a story. Tell me a good story, and you've got my attention."

On a lark, I eventually call the Convention Center and ask for Thomas. They recognize the last name. He hasn't worked there, they say, since last winter.

Guys like Thomas didn't show up in shelters much when Mary E first started, back in 1979. She'd worked as a nurse for 18 years, wrecked her back, drunk too much, and ended up in a church basement. Boredom drove her to volunteer, which led to a job. (How she eventually got hired by Hennepin County, especially without a master's degree, is a whole other story.) Her shelter, like most back then, was small and hosted an ever-shifting population of transients--hobos, hitchhikers, adventurers, drunks.

The change came sometime in the early '80s. More people hit the streets, often families and guys who looked like they could have been working construction. And they didn't move on. They'd come back over and over, after yet another eviction, yet another job lost or dumped, yet another relative sick and tired of house guests. An official homelessness crisis was declared in 1985, when Hennepin County created two huge shelters to relieve the overflowing church basements. At their peak in the early '90s, they held upwards of 1,000 people every night.  

Now one of the big shelters is gone, closed after the county stopped paying to shelter "able-bodied singles." So is General Assistance, the $203 monthly cash benefit for those without families to support. So is a good part of Social Security, food stamps... well, you know the story.

But statistics and policy stories don't begin to describe what's changed on the street. Even Mary E has a hard time putting her finger on it. There's a different rhythm now, she says--"angrier, more frantic. More desperate. Crack is part of it. It used to be people would get plastered at the beginning of the month and then everybody would get a rest. Now it's all the time.

"Plus we get a lot more throwaways now. People who might have been employed at some other time, but they don't have the brights to make it in this economy. There used to be a lot more casual labor. You'd hire on for two or three weeks at a time, and you could live on that for a while. There were hotels in downtown Minneapolis where you got a room for $4 a night.

"You see, I'm a pretty nasty lady. I think everyone is responsible for themselves. You have to get your own food, you have to fight for your treatment, you have to get your medication. That's your responsibility. But people can't build themselves an apartment. That's one thing the government has to provide assistance with."

She looks at her hands, which are turning a pretzel into breadcrumbs. "So when we get someone who's new to our system, who comes from the real world, we do our best to kick them back out. We hope that the wheels will grind and pull them back. Maybe family will intervene, or the medications will take, and we'll see a whole new person.

"But it almost has to happen within the first 30 days. Because once you're here, your problems multiply. We never see anyone with just one problem anymore. It's got to be six or seven.

"And you get used to it. You go, 'Fine. They fucked up my life. They ruined me.' Now you get a dozen people to say 'poor baby.' You get some of these little programs out there, with these little social workers, that a lot of guys will eat for lunch.

"Except me. What I say is, 'Look at yourself. You've been beaten up. You've been in prison. You smell. Where's that sweater you got for Christmas last year?' Until you can't answer that anymore." Then what? "Then you're here. Then you're with us, in the pit."

The pretzel crumbs form a neat little pile. "It seems as if it was easier before. More known. You could help more people. You could talk problems out, talk directions out, figure out a plan. Now all you can do is talk. And you get to the point where no matter how much you talk, there isn't crap available."

She grins. "Quit yer bitching, girl."

Women don't stay at Safe Waiting. They used to, but the staff decided it was too much hassle--midnight fights and the like. So the Salvation Army opened up a chunk of its ground floor to become Sally's Place, a shelter for women unlucky enough not to have a kid in tow. (Families with children are still guaranteed shelter over at the 410 Motel, near the Convention Center.) The 40 slots fill up just about every night.

By the time we hit Sally's around 9 p.m., many of the bunks are still empty. Curfew isn't until midnight, and a lot of the women are out working. (A cop acquaintance of Mary E's claims that there are now three times as many prostitutes on Lake Street as there were before the latest round of cuts in food stamps and SSI. Another welfare-to-work program.) On the wall by the door, someone has stuck a much-copied flier showing a woman's blurry face and the words "Have You Seen Roxy? If Yes, Please Call her Family." There's an 800 number.

"Did you ever get housing?" Mary E calls to a blonde in tie-dye pajamas. She stops, hands on her hips. "I was just looking at a place. They'll let me know Saturday. It's great. Sauna, whirlpool, the whole bit."

"How much?"


"Hope it works out."

"I think so. I'm working 40 hours a week, and he's got his steady job back. He hasn't been in the hospital for a few weeks, so that helps. We've been staying at a motel a few days a week."  

"I really hope it works out for her," Mary E says when the woman is out of earshot. "But the truth is, she's been here for months. Every day."

Mary E's best guess is that about half the women at Sally's are there semi-permanently. One older lady has been around since Safe Waiting first opened in 1995. The rest drift in and out. Some are retrieved by relatives; some move back in with husbands and boyfriends. Some just disappear.

Renelle is one of the lucky ones. When she arrived at Sally's four weeks ago, Mary E wrote her a voucher to spend a few weeks upstairs on the third floor of the Salvation Army. It's a special-needs unit for the sick and mentally ill, and Renelle was pretty depressed.

Renelle's story is that she was a social-service administrator in St. Louis, the second in command of a drop-in center for homeless people. She'd been a client who rose through the ranks. But her marriage went from bad to worse until she fled to Minneapolis. The Harriet Tubman battered-women's shelter kicked her out after eight hours "because I couldn't prove that I was in immediate danger. I know my husband is in town, but he would have had to beat me up right here for me to qualify."

Things are going okay now, Renelle says. At the Army she's a popular fixture, helping fellow residents decipher documents and occasionally second-guessing the workers. ("They have to carry themselves in a more professional manner," she complains. "Of course you got to talk, be sympathetic, but you have to keep your distance from the client.") She's got the next steps meticulously planned out: Get "my normal state of mind" back. Pick out interview clothes at the free store. Make appointments, maybe for jobs in the social-service field. Her dream is to open up a drop-in center for single women. But that's down the road.

"You know what's funny?" she asks when we're momentarily alone. "There are a lot more services in Minnesota than where I worked. But you have to declare yourself sick or disabled or crazy or addicted or something. When I had my depression, I could have gotten a check if I'd have filled out this form that says I'm depressed, I can't work. But what I had is curable."

At one point Renelle went to the private emergency shelter down the street from Currie Avenue. "You know what they told me? That I didn't look like I needed help. How am I supposed to look? Dirty? They let you take showers here, you know. You don't have to stink. If I need my face made up, I can go to any makeup counter, because they have samples.

"They think when you're homeless you have to look helpless," she spits. "Well, I'm not. I can work, I can take care of myself. But I need a place to stay." The rubber band between her hands looks about ready to snap. She gives it a determined twist. "That's how our world comes into destruction. When you look into the Book of Revelation, you see that all this stuff is going to come to pass."

Joe-yellow shirt, green pants, goatee--sits down in the roller chair in the storage room that serves as Mary E's Safe Waiting office. He's on unemployment right now and wants to know about housing. You're on your own, Mary E says. Any employment leads? Ditto. "Okay, one last thing. Where can I get my medications?" "Which ones?" "I take Prozac in the morning and Trazodone in the evening."

Now Mary E perks up. "Do you have a mental health disorder?" "I had an emotional breakdown." "You prefer to call it an emotional breakdown." He digests that while Mary E gets a paper from her bag. "You can get one of these forms filled out," she explains. "You can get on General Assistance. You're taking some nice, heavy drugs. You tell them, you got to take your meds, that you haven't been able to maintain employment. And make sure you ask to see a shrink. A psychiatrist. They'll be more impressed if you ask for a psychiatrist. Which I think you should do anyway, because you need it."

There's an odd enthusiasm in Mary E's voice at moments like this. It's as if she found a great thrill in discovering that someone is diagnosably sick. "Yeah," she grins when I ask. "I guess it means there's something specific wrong, and maybe if we fix it, things will be okay. We can get that tooth pulled. If he's mentally ill, there are housing programs--not a lot, but it's something. There's General Assistance, Social Security. We have options."  

This is one of those little revolutions you never notice until it's too late: There's nothing a person is entitled to anymore just because they're poor. (Except Medical Assistance, and that's next on the chopping block.) What was once a network of slim but generally available benefits has shriveled, leaving behind a tangle of specialized programs designed for this or that particular profile--single teen moms, schizophrenic vets, recovering drunks over 60--with people like Mary E as the gatekeepers. They can bend the rules sometimes, stretch them a bit. But they play the game.

Another head pokes through the door. "Mary?" "Yeah." "I just wanted to let you know, I did what you told me to do. And it looks like it's going to work out. I'm going down there on Monday." "Good for you." "Yeah. I told them the situation I was in. Looks like it's going to work out."

"I have no idea what I told him," Mary E mumbles when he's gone. "Sad little thing, though. He was a normal kid a couple of years ago. Then he got into drugs and his brain went soft. Now he's just not there anymore. He will lie around for hours and masturbate. He's been kicked out of places for the behavior. And then he's like this again--like a kid, a sweet kid."

Mary E has been picking at Daniel's case for some time now, trying to get him hooked up with this program or that. Some say he doesn't qualify; some have no openings; some don't want him because of "The Behavior." He's in the mental-health catch-22: To get help he'd have to make and keep appointments, sell his case, and generally have his act together to the point where he might not need help.

The general estimate is that something like 40 percent of the people on the street in Hennepin County and nationally are mentally ill. Many of them would have been in insane asylums once, but those have long since been closed down. Theoretically there's still help available--medication, therapy, emergency commitment. In practice, public clinics like Hennepin County Medical Center's Crisis Center are strained and workers triage brutally.

"What happens a lot is that we have to prove that something is not baseline behavior," Mary E says. "So we have a guy who's preaching to parking meters, and he's been doing that for months. Crisis Center says, well, that's his baseline. Nothing's changed, right? Yes, but... he's preaching to parking meters. And he's doing it without a jacket. And it's getting cold. So is he posing a danger to himself or others? Not yet."

On my next visit to Safe Waiting, I catch a glimpse of the log book. A monitor has noted how Daniel lost his King James Bible and demanded that they call the cops; when they wouldn't, he "jumped up and down and screamed" until they called 911 after all. "He seemed to be talking to people who were not in the room," the entry says. "Mary E--any help out there for Daniel?" Mary E grabs a pen and draws out big, blocky letters: NO!!!

"Our hope is that eventually, he'll leave town," she smiles. "Is that a sick thing to say?"

The first time I followed Mary E around, Safe Waiting was run by a guy named Jim Wynne. He's a large, gregarious, earnest man, who walked in late in the evening and sat on a cardboard box. When he found out what I was doing he encouraged me to come back, even bring a photographer. I was puzzled--previous administrations had discouraged public attention to Safe Waiting. "I want people to know about this," he said. "I told my relatives in Hastings where I work, and they just looked at me with this blank stare. They said, this doesn't happen in Minnesota. Only in New York or Chicago."

By this time, Wynne had been in the job for a little more than six months. But the longer we talked the clearer it became that he, too, didn't really believe where he was. "People are just being herded in here," he'd say incredulously. "Herded. And nobody is standing up for them."

"Of course nobody is," Mary E would chime in. "You remember how they got services for little kids? Their moms and dads stepped up, and they had these cute little faces. A lot of this kind of trouble hits at 18, 20 years old. These guys are not cute anymore."

I'm not sure Wynne was listening to her. "You know, I've seen every facet of this," he said. "I've been at the Drake, at the Cabrini, I was a prison guard for a while. But I've never seen it like this.  

"It's nothing you can tell right away. You go out there now, and you see them joking around and playing cards. You know they wanted me to take the cards away? They said, listen, they're probably gambling out there. I said, yeah, they're gambling all right. The purse was $1.75.

"What I've never seen before I came here, is when your dreams become a vulnerability. When you can't reach for your dreams anymore. When it hurts to dream. You can't have that white picket fence that everybody says you're supposed to have. You've got a whole population looking at you and going, 'You're the reason we're in debt, you're the reason our taxes are up, you're the reason the streets aren't safe.'"

His hand brushed over his forehead. "And the problem is, we can't help them until something real bad happens to them. And then it's usually too late."

''Hey, Mary,'' a young guy in a Tigers shirt hollers from across the hall. "You working hard?" She waves him in. "Did you ever go to that program I told you?" "I'm going to." "I want you to. Because, see, you've got an advantage. You've got that seizure disorder. I'm going to give you the number again, and I want you to call in the morning."

He comes closer, Dixie cup in hand, toothbrush sticking out of back pocket. "I was going to ask you--can I get a bus token at the food-stamp building? I have an appointment down there in the morning, and then I need to get to a job interview."

She ponders. "They might do that. General Assistance does it, I think. Food stamps might. Me, I can't. Not for employment stuff."

"What can you do it for?" "Medical appointments, stuff like that."

She waits. He's shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "Were you planning to see your dentist on your way out there?" she finally asks. He takes his cue. "I thought I would." "Well, in that case." She pulls out a token. "Say hello to your dentist from me." "Yeah," he grins. "And the tooth fairy, too."

"I thought I was the only one doing things like that," she says when he's gone. "But then I found out that some of my co-workers do it, too, every once in a while. We just get tired of saying no."

She glances at my notepad. "But we have to. Because it's always something. A guy goes, 'I got a great job, but it's in Wisconsin, or it's in Eagan, and I need a bus pass.' Well, the Access unit doesn't do employment stuff. We don't give out bus cards so people can get to work. So the accusation is, 'The county doesn't want us to work.' But if we did it, we'd have lines for three blocks. So there's got to be cutoffs."

She grins, sensing the absurdity of the whole thing. "There was a guy in here the other day, from Chicago," she says apropos nothing in particular. "Marvin. And I owed him a life. I just bit into him. It feels good to do that when I get a real nasty one in here. 'What do you mean, you're living on your girlfriend? What do you mean you can't get a job? Why should I give you a bus token? Why should I give you anything?' He got real belligerent.

"But I had the computer. I said, 'You want to play solitaire? You even know how to play solitaire?' 'Sure I know how,' he says. 'I could show you.'

"Well, he didn't. You know how you move the cursor around, and you hit this button at the same time? It's very hard to do when you have no coordination. And he couldn't get the combinations right. Black, red, you know, solitaire. He couldn't do it. Basically, he's borderline retarded. But we played for a half hour, and we had fun. And you saw him earlier. He was the guy who got me the Pepsi.

"So I put him in the 410. The county doesn't want us to do that. But he got a job working the night shift, and he had to have a place to sleep during the day. Except now they're getting busy, and he can't stay there anymore."

The computer makes a raspberry noise as another round of Hearts reaches an inglorious end. Mary E puts her face close to the screen. "I wonder sometimes," she snarls, "why they don't rise up and go to war."  

Currie Avenue is at its most beautiful at sunset. The east end, past Target Center's brick facade, affords a stunning view when the setting sun lights fires in all the skyscraper windows. At the west end, the same sunset plays larger and less intense across a distant sky.

We're in the parking lot, Mary E surreptitiously inhaling the second-hand smoke from my cigarette. She quit some time ago, started rollerblading instead. She does it alone, like most other things; when she gets home from work, all she wants is to be left alone.

"But I like being out here," she sighs. "I think all of us do. We get something out of it. I'm not a do-gooder, never have been. But this is something I can do. I'm no computer whiz. And they don't hire a lot of 54-year-old nurses.

"Plus, this place has everything any other community has. It's got the mothers and the fathers and the sympathetic people and the less sympathetic people. You got people who can fix your car, teachers--not just professional teachers, but people who can teach you. We had one doctor, that was drug use. Last year there was an attorney--one of the first to die that winter. Prominent family, a lot of money, his own practice. Brilliant man."

We walk in silence for a while, past weather-beaten shrubs and the freeway embankment. "A guy was living there for almost a year," she points to a tiny grassy patch where the Salvation Army's angled walls meet. "It took me seven months to get his name, and a whole pack of cigarettes. It was, 'If you want a cig, I want your name. And my name is Mary.' Last winter I saw him there with three sweatshirts on. I got him a coat. I didn't get him off the street, but that's what streetworkers do. They work with street clients."

Something reminds me to ask about Jim Wynne. "He quit," she shrugs. "He was dying in here. He said, 'This is a dead end. There's got to be more. There's got to be more.' I said, 'No. You have to learn to work here. You have to learn to work here. Maintain them here. Serve them here.' He couldn't do that. He wanted to keep moving them out, up." She makes one of those well-that's-that gestures. "Let's go back in."

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