Helter Shelter

Mark Wojahn

Sonny Peet is dead. They found him washed up on the riverbank. The news follows the Mississippi down from North Minneapolis, spills out into railroad trenches, and floods the shores of meager campsites--scraps of cardboard, a sleeping bag, a stash of clothing in the shrubbery next to an overpass.

Sonny Peet is dead. He washed up wearing nothing but his camo pants, his shoes, his belt. At every encampment along the river you hear his name.

Someone saw him swimming on September 3--but who goes swimming in their pants? Who goes swimming at all in that muck? They searched for his body for two weeks. It just disappeared. Finally he surfaced by the Riverview Supper Club, swollen up like a frog, bloated, smelling like the river--worse.

It's 1 o'clock in the afternoon in a field of gravel by Minneapolis's old Grain Belt Brewery on the Mississippi--fine September weather, with a hint of chill behind the sun. Time to get a mummy bag, heavy boots, a winter coat. A fringe of trees stands along an embankment on one side of the lot. The leaves are still green, but you can tell they're fading out to brown. A hand grips one of the trunks, shaking its crown. A man pulls his weary frame up the hill, pauses at the crest, then ambles across a strip of grass, heading toward a mud-hole at the center of the lot. A young man coasts in on his bicycle, and another pair wanders up to join the gathering.

The Sally--the Salvation Army food truck--motors into the lot. By now some 20 men are waiting for its back doors to swing open, tramps and hobos and homeless men who camp along the banks and railroad tracks.

The Sally punctuates days on the riverfront, meals served off the truck having worked their way into the rhythm of daily life here. The vehicle bounces slowly over the bumps, stopping by the mud-hole to unlatch its rear doors. It's Wednesday, the day they pass out hot food.

"Hey, Jeff. Hey, Dana."

"Hey, Mike, Jim."

"D'ja hear about Sonny Peet?"

Sonny Peet is the latest casualty among the river and railroad dwellers ("camp tramps" is the name some have adopted). To the authorities, he was just one more vagrant who didn't stand out in life or death. The county medical examiners looked over Dennis "Sonny" Peet, age 39, single, no permanent address, and ruled his death a fresh-water drowning. Case closed.

But all along the river, the camp tramps keep his story alive--as a fatal instance, a consequence of the dangers they face. First the news of his death and then, sucking behind it like a rip tide, the rumors: Sonny Peet got tipped into the river by skinheads, by turf kids from gangland. Sonny Peet got beat by some drunk tramp--maybe you, maybe me. Sonny Peet slipped and fell into the current. Sonny Peet got himself drowned by the cops. Then a shake of the head. "Shit," one guy in line says, "it's getting more dangerous down here every day."

Sally's giving out ribs today. Good stuff. Something to drink? Coffee? More bikes materialize. A camper pulls up, a little worse for the wear and creaking on its springs. A stooped old man in a Camel T-shirt and a very small girl step out to take their place in line. A pickup with a sagging bed lets out four men, their sunbaked faces grimy with work dirt.

Wesley LaGrange arrives a minute or two after the truck. He exchanges handshakes and hellos all around. "I got my jacket," he tells a friend. "See? Got my winter jacket out of storage." He spins on his heel showing off the coat, a dull-green parka he's had stashed at a friend's house along with winter supplies. Wesley lives year-round at his campsite just off the railroad tracks.

White paper bags all around: ribs, juice, broth with lots of crackers in Styrofoam cups. The men scatter out and squat by the power poles, opening bags and quieting down to eat. For a while there's time to twist a Top cigarette and talk a little. A death in the family is big news. Part of the calculus of life on the river lately is death, or beating, or rape, or losing your camp to cop sweeps. (Minneapolis police say they don't keep separate statistics on violence in the camps or on the tracks, but the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless says 50 homeless people died around the state last year, most of them in Minneapolis and St. Paul, most from exposure or violence.)

The camper with the young girl inside pulls away first. Then the pickup. Bicycles evaporate. Men slip two by two back into the woods along the river. The Sally wagon closes shop and lumbers off. Wesley turns his back on the brewery and stands alone, again, in the empty field of gravel before heading toward camp.  

Whatever you make of Sonny Peet's death, it underscores a simple truth: The margins of error have never been slimmer for homeless men in the city many of them have come to call "Minnehopeless."

In 1995, the state legislature eliminated the Work Readiness program, which offered a $203 monthly check, job training, food stamps, and eligibility for county-paid emergency shelter to some 1,800 people statewide, mostly adult men and most of them in Hennepin County. Two years later, as part of welfare reform, the federal government tightened the guidelines for obtaining Supplemental Security Income (SSI)--financial assistance to people with disabilities--and another round of men, previously considered disabled because of drug or alcohol addiction, dropped through the safety net.

Meanwhile, the slow leak of homeless shelter space in the Twin Cities turned into a hemorrhage: Before 1995 the county had promised shelter to anyone who needed it, and maintained bed space for 1,200. But shortly after the Work Readiness changes, the offer was revoked; in May 1996 the county closed the Drake Hotel, a 600-bed shelter in Minneapolis that served mostly adult men and women without children.

Now, says Marge Wherley, who supervises the county's adult housing program, Hennepin's policy is that "The most vulnerable people should be housed first"--meaning families with children (who are put up at downtown Minneapolis's 410 shelter, and in motel rooms the county rents) and those who are certified as disabled or chronically unemployable. "That," Wherley confirms, "leaves a lot of other people out."

For them, the county provides "safe waiting" space, a stripped-down shelter that looks like a Greyhound lobby without chairs, ticket booths, or buses. Every night, people line up for one of some 250 mats and cots laid out on a bare vinyl floor. Most nights, dozens more are turned away. "We don't think it's the equivalent of shelter," Wherley says, "but it keeps people from freezing." For many, downtown's safe waiting becomes home, as months drag into years, with no increase in the possibility of alternative housing.

A handful of smaller shelters, like the one at St. Stephen's Church in South Minneapolis, offer bunk beds for up to four weeks at a time. St. Stephen's has 40 spaces; staffers say on any given night the facility turns away as many people as it allows in. And the situation is perhaps most dire for teens: A study conducted last October found 377 "unaccompanied youth" in Minnesota on the streets that month. The three local institutions that offer beds for homeless kids have space for fewer than 50.

But while shelter space has declined drastically, demand has shot up. Across the state, the rate of homelessness is as high as it's been since anyone started keeping track of the numbers. The research office of the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit with more than 100 social service programs, conducts a study of homelessness every three years. According to their most recent survey, on October 23, 1997 there were 5,238 people living in Minnesota's homeless shelters, battered women's shelters, and transitional housing programs, compared to 2,875 in 1991. Add in people with what Wilder's Greg Owen calls "precarious housing"--those who live on the street, in abandoned buildings, or doubled up in friends' homes--and the numbers jump significantly: from 7,980 in 1991 to 15,759 last year.

The foundation also found that one in three of the homeless people surveyed held a job, and one in six worked full time. In previous studies, Owen says, "There's always been some marginal employment. But what we're seeing now is this core of 17 to 20 percent who are employed, and who either remain homeless or become homeless. What that tells us is that the issue is the affordable housing crisis."

Pinning down the percentage of homeless people who live outside is quite a bit more difficult than estimating the shelter population, Owen says. Last year Wilder interviewers surveyed 195 residents in metropolitan area camps--admittedly a fraction of the total population. "We certainly know it's bigger than the number we've interviewed," Owen concludes. "I think it's at least two to three times that many, and it may be as high as 10 times."

Indeed, there are stretches along the Mississippi where, if you know what to look for, it's hard not to count half a dozen camps in a 15-minute walk. Scraps of tarp are strung over driftwood and scrap lumber. Blankets and clothing lie scattered in clearings. Bundles of sleeping bags are hidden away under the shrubbery. A living room might be a couple of couch cushions, old tree stumps, maybe a car seat. Fire pits form the dining room.

Patrick Wood, who works with the North Minneapolis outreach program People Incorporated, may be the only non-tramp who regularly visits the camps, offering to hook up their residents with what social services are left for them, chiefly mental-health programs. The last time he set out to count the entire population, he came up with a total of 758 outdoor dwellers--and he knows that a number of the craftiest campers, those who tuck their bodies into old sewer pipes and nooks beneath downtown buildings, escaped even that census.  

Wood says that after some five years of working with camp tramps, he's noticed that they, by and large, aren't clamoring for shelter or other government assistance. "They tend to be conservative in their politics, especially the vets. They tend to believe they should be self-reliant, that they should be able to take care of themselves." And they used to be able to do that, he argues: "When I moved here in 1974, there were probably 15 or 20 sleeping-room hotels downtown," offering beds for a few dollars a night and providing independent living for people with no jobs, low-paying jobs, and those on fixed incomes.

But most of those beds disappeared during the office-construction boom of the 1980s; according to figures provided by Kirk Hill of the Minneapolis Tenants Union, the core city lost more than 2,000 single-room occupancy units between 1970 and 1990. And in the current rental market, where vacancy rates continue to hover under 2 percent, rents run from $200 for a sleeping room (if you can find one) to $600 for a one-bedroom unit. Add security deposits, and application fees ranging from $30 to $50 (and the increasingly stringent background screenings such fees fund), and you get an entire segment of the population locked out of the rental housing market--making it that much harder, Wood says, for homeless people to "get their hands on the bottom rung of the economic ladder."

"I've been working at St. Stephen's shelter for about 10 years," says Mary Gallini, the shelter's program director. "There were always people who used to camp out. It was a small percentage who did that. Now more people are forced to make that choice--to sleep outside, as opposed to being in here at our place or at a county-funded shelter like the Drake. I find people asking for a blanket who five years ago never would have dreamed of it."

It's a cool Friday afternoon in September, and while the rest of the city seems to be picking up paychecks, hitting the freeways early, or heading for happy hour, Wesley LaGrange is busy tracking a heckler walking over his bridge. Wesley's down in the shrubbery, sitting on the cardboard "carpet" in his drinking camp, one of three he's claimed for home along a stretch of train tracks in Northeast Minneapolis. A couple of cases' worth of empties are scattered around the ground, along with soiled bags from the Sally wagon, granola bar wrappers, crushed juice boxes, and cigarette butts.

The heckler's oaths are lost in the hum of traffic behind him--unintelligible shouts drifting down into camp. Wesley curses under his breath, but he doesn't yell back. "That's just starting a fight," he figures. "The less conflict I got down here, the better off I am. See, you learn how to live out here. You learn that man's destination is self-preservation. I could have four or five pints in me, and I hear this boy yelling up there. I still leave it alone. Cause number one: I don't want him getting in my camp. Number two: If he rips me off, I got to go hunt him down and then we got a fight going. Number three: Then I go to jail. See?"

He pauses and flicks his lighter to a four-inch cigar stub he's been saving, then passes it to Larry, his friend and partner for the day. It's usually in his other camp, his "clean camp," that Wesley gets his share of harassment from the world above the railroad tracks. His clean camp consists of a pair of old couch cushions positioned around a scrubby poplar--it's more open, and thus more vulnerable. His year-round drinking camp is hidden beneath the undergrowth. There he's stashed away his sleeping bag, his duffel with spare clothes and alarm clock, and stray bags of food he's saved up for weekends when the Sally's not in service. The location of his third camp is a secret. He keeps it strictly in reserve for nights when the railroad patrol--the "bulls"--come by, handing out tickets and rousting out the men who camp along the line.

Wesley says he established his camps a couple of years ago after an altercation with his girlfriend. He owned a house back then, he claims, up in North Minneapolis. As he tells it, his girlfriend got drunk one night and stabbed him--in his neck, his arm and shoulder, and his stomach. "When I got stabbed, I went off," he recalls. "Man's destination is self preservation, right? I got stabbed five times. I went off. Grabbed the girl by the head. I didn't hit her with my hand. I screwed up. I worked in the foundry. I had steel-toed boots on and I popped her in the head with my boot. I said, 'You leave me alone.'  

"Now, I ain't lying about this. It's all on file. Well, it ended up where they took me to Hennepin County Medical Center. And her, too. I hit her so hard with the boot--well, you get steel upside your head, your head's going to ball out. But I figured it was justified because, hey, she put a blade on me. She wanted to kill me. Doctors said if it had been an inch over she would have killed me.

"They packed me up. I'm getting ready to go, then I got this big old cop wrestling me up against the wall. Split me open on the wall. She and I, we both got arrested. This is what really gets me--a woman's rights in this state are better than a man's. When it comes to a man and a woman to get out of jail, it took me six hours, where it took her two hours. Is she better than me or something? Everybody says, 'Go to Texas, Wesley, go to Texas, 'cause it's all different. Woman ain't got no equal right down there. She's a slave bearing babies, that's it. If she gets out of her place, man puts her back in her place, and that's it.'" In Wesley's version of the story, after the legal troubles with his girlfriend and some unpaid child support caught up with him, he lit out for the railroad tracks.

Lately, Wesley goes on, the occasional urge hits him to find an apartment and come in off the streets. But when he's tried, he hasn't had much luck: "I had 3,000 bucks. So I go and I apply for a spot in a building. I pay $30 for an application fee, which is nonrefundable. That knocks me down to $2,970, right? Then you figure first, last month's rent plus the damage deposit. Well, then they come back--'Your references ain't good enough.' Now you burned 30 bucks. It's all these high-tech idiots around here that think they're better than us that're the problem."

The other problem for camp tramps this summer has been cops. Outdoor camping has been illegal in Minneapolis for decades, but until recently police didn't go out of their way to enforce the law as long as the camps stayed out of sight. And in a city whose old industrial areas, overgrown railroad embankments, river bluffs, and freeway overhangs have been popular since the hobo days, staying out of sight was rarely a problem for tramps who couldn't or wouldn't take advantage of the shelters.

All that has changed now. Following the modifications in shelter policy and welfare law, a new crowd--people who wouldn't sleep outdoors if there were another option, and who lack the veterans' savvy--made the camps more conspicuous and more numerous, attracting attention from nearby businesses and police. Late this spring, the Minneapolis Police Department launched concentrated sweeps designed to clear the river banks of vagrants. Throughout the summer, police from the downtown command have walked the length of the river every couple of weeks, using the no-camping ordinance as reason to tear down established camps. "They took this war on poverty a little too far," says a man who's come up from the riverfront to one of the Sally stops. "They're going through people's property, throwing it in the river, burning it. They're attacking the camps."

Mary Erpelding, a streetworker with Hennepin County's mental-health access unit, concurs: "In the past, they've frequently had that kind of move during the Aquatennial, or around State Fair time--maybe they want to clear space for tourists to camp. But this year it went on all summer. I just saw a woman today--everything in the camp she was in got thrown into the river, things got ripped apart, their IDs got taken. And these are the only possessions that people have. They will have to be replaced--you'll have to go down and get or find or steal another bag, another backpack. And they get harassed, screamed and yelled at. I'm not sure this is a job that the police are in love with--but it's a city thing."

Sharon Lubinski, the inspector in charge of the MPD's downtown command, says that police do pull apart the makeshift shelters, but denies that anyone's belongings are taken. The MPD's policy is justified, she says, by the increase in violence on the river. The number of assaults and homicides is on the rise in the camps, she points out, and so are the exposure deaths that occur every winter. "The life they live is not a safe one," she says, stressing that the department doesn't keep separate statistics on crime that occurs in and around the camps. When violence in those areas does occur, she adds, "it's typically not where we patrol, [so] it's usually extreme because there's nobody there to stop it. One of our murders this year was committed under a bridge with a rock."  

The logic behind this summer's frequent police sweeps, Lubinski says, is to move river-dwellers into the shelter system by force. "If they're in a shelter and someone's getting assaulted or raped, at least you have some staff to intervene. They should be in the shelters. That's going to be more safe."

Never mind that most of the campers have been made ineligible for shelter in the last few years, and that there is no room left at safe waiting. What's happened instead, agree social service workers who keep track of camp life, is that the sweeps have simply driven Minneapolis's homeless population deeper underground and further into the woods. This year, people on the river have taken to camping in groups of only two or three--making it easier to avoid police raids and stay mobile, to move camp every night if necessary, heading further upstream for cover.

Until as recently as last year, it wasn't difficult to find established camps of a dozen people who'd gathered around a leader or a good cook; they could last, outreach worker Patrick Wood says, a year or two before breaking up. More than 100 people at a time lived in the old General Mills grain elevator two winters ago, where temperatures kept steady enough to survive and the elements could be shut out. But the city tore the elevator down this year after a series of murders, rapes, and assaults took place there in 1997.

Wood believes that the MPD sweeps may actually be effecting an increase in camp violence. "When you lose the permanent encampments," he says, "you lose stability in the lives of homeless folks. You lose even a marginal sense of belonging. With that comes increasing isolation. People aren't watching out for one another. I suspect that breaking up of larger camps has made people more vulnerable to attacks from outside of the homeless community." Like others inside and outside the camps, Wood is convinced that homeless men have become targets for skinheads, gangsters, and "kids from the suburbs." He admits there is no documentation of such a trend besides the widespread rumors in the camps.

"It's very hard to get them to talk about people attacking them. No one wants to say 'I got beat up.' But there's a definite increase in violence--and I think it's tied to the loss of stability and a loss of the larger camps."

"It seems that the attitude is that [the city] wants people to go away--that if we treat them badly they'll go back to Chicago," says St. Stephen's Mary Gallini. "But the reality is, no one is going to go away. This is where people live." And while Gallini and other shelter providers expect the police sweeps to slow down when winter comes--police, the reasoning goes, won't slog through knee-deep snow--they don't believe the camps will magically empty out with the advent of cold weather.

In the past, October 15 marked the date when Hennepin County shelters switched to their "winter policy," under which no one who asked for shelter could be turned away. Gallini says she and other members of the Shelter Providers Action Association, a recently formed local coalition, have been lobbying the county to come up with some sort of increased shelter for this winter, but so far to no avail; instead, they will spend October 15 holding a city-wide "summit" on homelessness at the downtown United Way Building.

"Shelter is not the politically correct thing to talk about right now," Gallini acknowledges. "People go, 'Oh, that's an '80s thing.' But in the '80s we didn't have 1,000 people sleeping outside every night."

It's getting on toward 4:00 in the afternoon. Time to make the 4:30 Sally stop. Wesley and Larry toss a couple beers into a bag and head down the rails.

A typical day, Wesley says, is punctuated by the Salvation Army truck. For several years it has delivered food, medical supplies, blankets--the basics--every weekday to around 150 people, working as a critical link between the men in the camps and provisions that keep them from starving and freezing in the woods.

Today, though, Wesley and Larry are the only show-ups at the Sally stop. Everyone else, it seems, is staying under cover on "CODEFOR Friday." (Rumor in the camps is, that's the day when the MPD trains its computer-aided crime prevention effort on their territory; Lubinski says there's no stepped-up enforcement on Friday.) The Sally hands out bags containing two bologna sandwiches, chips, broth ("Good for alcoholics," Wesley says. "Lots of salt.") and a juice box. Larry carefully takes his sandwiches apart. He tears up two slices of bread into little pieces and scatters them at his feet for the birds.  

Then he slaps the other two halves of his sandwiches together and takes a bite. After they've eaten, Wesley and Larry put another mile on their boots walking downstream to the "six flags," a spot along the redesigned jogging path on the downtown riverfront favored by Wesley because it's out of view from the street. They find a place to sit down on a concrete buttress along the river. There's already someone drinking at the spot. "Call me Thor," he says as they take their places.

Thor offers beers and lights up a joint. "I just got out of prison," he tells them, "and found that I'd been thrown out of my apartment while I was locked up. Eighteen months I was in jail and then I was acquitted. Can you believe that? Come out, and now I got no place to live." Thor removes his tennis shoes and curls his toes, with his feet extended straight out in front of him.

The drink warms and loosens up the men. The river slips by in front of them as night comes on. Thor asks if anyone's read Plato or Aristotle while he hands out the last of his beer. Larry vomits his bologna sandwich into the river. Wesley says "I grew up in Vietnam, man," and Thor comes back with, "Oh, who gives a fuck? Who gives a fuck? You're living in the past. That was yesterday. What are you doing today?" Larry drops his pants and moons a pleasure boat drifting by on the water. Someone creeps up behind and asks to buy a beer. Wesley sells the one Thor gave him, for two dollars.

"I've got a .45-caliber Blackhawk back at camp," Wesley announces then to his assembled company. "When people start talking shit to me I say 'Hey, you don't want to mess with me.' I got permits to carry this stuff. I can do whatever I want. You want a little 'Nam on your ass? Come on. I'll give it to you straight."

Thor keeps up: "I got a 9 mm right here in my bag." A pause. "No, I'm just shitting you." Larry opens Thor's bag and shakes out the items: a shirt, a pair of pants, a manila envelope stuffed with papers, an inmate complaint form. No gun. Larry buttons on the shirt, a red plaid.

Wesley offers to sell Thor his pocket radio for five bucks toward a 12-pack. Thor hands over the money. A few minutes later, Thor's forgotten the radio. Wesley pockets it, and the three men rise and walk down river, across the bridge, and up to Surdyk's liquor store. The place is busy, but everyone shuns the men. Conversations fall silent in the aisles. One customer touches his wallet through his pants, an automatic gesture provoked by the sight of the drunken threesome.

They do their business quietly and head back into the chill. It's dark now, and a wind is blowing up rain. Wesley shoulders the 12-pack and fluffs up his coat around his ears. "When I get my money in pocket," he spits against the cold, "I can play then. I got one-and-a-half million dollars in an IRA. I tell you one thing, I can play on that half a million and never touch my million. And I tell you, I can be a dirty fucking dog. I plan on being one. I do. I'm going to raise some hocus pocus. I'm going to get mad at everyone who's been mad at me. Police, number one.

"See, what I was thinking of doing was buying a piece of real estate," he goes on, unfolding his reverie into the dark. "Build a house. C'mon! You ain't got no place to go? C'mon! You coming with father dad. I'd call myself 'father dad.' I want you to work. I want you to help out. Nothing going to be free here. A place to crash out. You got a job? You get up and go to work. You want wake-ups? We'll get you up. Whole nine yards. I been here. I've been a tramp. I know what it's about and it sucks. But man's destination is self-preservation, right?"

Wesley roots around in one of his bags for a few minutes and pulls out a pair of camouflage pants. Because he's a Vietnam vet, Wesley gets army surplus supplies from the Veterans Administration--the main source, along with the Sally wagon, of his belongings. He shakes the pants in Larry's direction. "Here," he tells him, "these oughta fit you. Take them. Thirty-five inch waist? That oughta fit around your belly."  

With that, he turns his attention to the police sweeps plaguing his companions on the river--an operation that hasn't yet found its way to his series of encampments. "It ain't going to change until we all put up right here." He juts out his chin, and gives a satisfied nod to the logic of the thought. A moment goes by. Then: "That's what we should do--every damn one of us set up camp right in one spot, and then, go ahead. Come on and take us. The way they're rolling this shit, they're rolling it like Vietnam. They want Vietnam, I'll give it to them. That's it. I been through the dirty shit. I shot people. They keep messing with me, I'll keep shooting."

Managing Editor Monika Bauerlein contributed to this story.

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