Living Against the Law
Half of the sky is blue. The gray part is above us, and it's starting to snow in heavy clumps. The cold feels as if it could soak right to the bone. "Will somebody please tell me how it's snowing and half the sky is blue?" Gnat--she likes the nickname--holds her arms out to the sides and is spinning slowly in a circle and looking up. "Hey!" she yells, because no one answered. "Will somebody please explain how the hell it's snowing when there's blue sky right there?"
She turns her dark eyes on the four of us and giggles. Her slender body is lost inside the layers of clothes covered by an oversize army jacket. Her teeth are small, like a child's, and very white--a sure sign that she hasn't been homeless for long.
Gnat and her boyfriend Little John have just been kicked out of the cafeteria at the downtown Minneapolis Community College. They're usually welcome to hang out there and drink coffee or, if they have any money, get something to eat. But today there's been trouble with a security guard. "They just hate homeless people," Gnat says as she takes a sip of vodka, then shoves the bottle back inside her coat. Her eyes are glassy and her voice sounds like one long shriek. Little John leans in close and tells her that no one hates them; they'll just go back another day, maybe tomorrow. His teeth are chattering and his sandy hair hangs in wet ringlets.
Snow is piling up quickly on the stairs below us. Little John, a slight man in his 30s, shifts his weight around, trying to get comfortable on his crutches. He's not supposed to get his left foot wet. It has been more than a month since his toes were so badly frostbitten that doctors at the Hennepin County Medical Center's emergency room thought they might have to amputate. He managed to avoid surgery, but the process of scraping away dead skin and cleaning and rewrapping the foot in gauze will go on for some time. The injury is still painful, and infection has set in. "I gotta get inside," Little John tells the others, in his raspy smoker's voice.
Westside wants to head for the Triangle. He and his friend Chris just got off work and it's time to start drinking. The Triangle, secreted amid scrub trees at the intersection of several railroad tracks, is what they call their party camp. Chris and another guy left 20 minutes ago to buy booze. They're probably at camp already. Westside's shakes have slacked off since he had a few swallows of vodka, but he's not about to stand here drinking on the steps of the community college.
Little John mutters that he shouldn't go. He needs to keep his foot dry. Nobody's listening. Five other men have joined the group. Three are wearing "goon suits," green Air Force-issue flight suits. "They're ugly, but they're warm," a tall guy--we'll call him Paul--says. Jeff Parr, who for several years has worked as an advocate for homeless people in the Cities, gets the one-size-fits-all outfits from the local Veterans Administration. Westside won't wear them. Jeff thinks it's because they remind him of Vietnam.
Westside is insistent about the Triangle, promising Little John an extra pair of socks to keep his foot warm. It's clear that if Little John doesn't go along, he'll be on his own for the rest of the afternoon. So he lets Gnat help him down the stairs to Jeff's truck. Only a couple of people can fit up front, so the rest pile into the back. Gnat sits on her friend Backtrack's lap. "God, has anyone ever told you that you've got a bony butt?" he asks. She stands and wriggles around, but loses her balance and comes down hard on his thighs. "That better?" she laughs, with her head tossed back so that she's looking at everything upside down.
There is a big cardboard box in the truck bed. Gnat leans forward and digs around for a hat, but today Jeff has brought only "mittens." "I ain't wearin' those," Paul grumbles, even though his hands are the color of raw hamburger. Everyone is staring at the bunch of Easter-egg-colored oven mitts. Each pair is made of felted material, thin as a dishcloth, with sparkles embedded in it. They were donated by the Hennepin County's Access Unit, a division of adult services that provides outreach to the homeless.
It's a short ride. An awkward quiet has set in. Gnat and Paul stare intently out the camper windows, as if there were something new to see under the bridges where they've walked a thousand times.
The Triangle is home, in one way or another, to everyone here. It's their living room; the locations of their sleeping camps are kept secret. It's okay if the party camp gets busted up by the police, and it frequently does. They just don't want to be invaded by cops, or anyone else, in their sleep. For their part, Westside and Chris say they choose to live outside, that after ten years under the Minneapolis stars they don't feel right under a roof. But most of the others on this ride are camping and passing time at the Triangle because the "good" local shelters are full to capacity, and the "bad" ones are scary; they'd rather take a chance outside, they agree, than stay where they might get robbed or beat up.
It has been illegal to camp in Minneapolis for decades, but the police have begun strenuous enforcement of the law only in the last few years. Officers "sweep" camps, breaking down shacks and tents and, by all accounts, roundly telling the dwellers to move on or arresting them. Westside and his friends believe city hall and the police department are trying to drive them out of town, or at least far enough to the outskirts so they won't be the city's problem anymore.
The officers who clear the makeshift shelters say their patrols are necessary because violent crime is on the rise in illegal campsites, especially those along the Mississippi. Westside and his friends agree, citing several killings that have taken place along the banks in recent years. They don't camp by the river anymore. Several of them sleep under bridges, where there is some protection from sight and the elements. A few others crowd into parking ramps or public bathrooms for the night, in hopes of keeping warm and avoiding detection.
Advocates for the homeless have been trying for months to get what's known as the City/County Homeless Task Force to recommend that enforcement of the anti-camping law be suspended. It doesn't make sense, they say, to arrest people for camping out when they have no place else to go. Minneapolis shelters are crammed full and affordable housing has never been in shorter supply.
But a majority of those on the task force (which was established last spring by the Minneapolis City Council and the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners to come up with possible solutions to homelessness) disagreed with that line of reasoning. At their most recent meeting, on February 10, the bulk of the group's nearly three dozen members voted against putting a freeze on the camping prohibition. By way of explanation, members expressed fear that allowing people to camp in peace would lead to pitched tents and sleeping bags on downtown streets and residential front lawns.
Westside and Little John laugh at the notion. "We're not going to be out there in the open," Little John says. "We want our privacy, too."
Sunlight filters through the windows above the front desk at Catholic Charities, at 1000 Currie Ave. in downtown Minneapolis, where Westside works. The building is quiet this morning, and he's been sitting here poring over Mickey Spillane's detective mystery The Snake. "I don't usually read this stuff," Westside says as he sets the paperback aside. His favorite author is Louis L'Amour. He's read all of his novels, epic Westerns set against the boundless, purple-sage expanses of the Great Plains.
"Branch two food shelf," Westside says, answering the phone. He tells the caller that they open at noon. Then he explains how one qualifies for free food. Don't live around here? Well, check with the Basilica of St. Mary down the street, he advises; somebody there might issue you a waiver.
Westside and Chris have been coming to Catholic Charities for nearly a decade. They wake early during the work week, tuck their sleeping bags up into the crevices of whatever bridge they've been sleeping under, and walk over here. They arrive by 8:00, and get busy stocking donations. Chris, who volunteers his time, spends most of his shift downstairs at the food shelf. Westside, who gets paid for a portion of his, takes turns watching the front door and answering the phones.
Westside is a small, wiry man with the fading tattoos of a peacock, a unicorn, an ape, and a castle on his arms. There's a big scar running down one side of his nose, evidence of a hard kick he took in the face when a guy tried to rob him one night. His shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair looks like it would be all over the place if it weren't for the Hard Rock Cafe baseball cap he constantly wears. When he talks, he has a habit of pulling on his long beard and twisting the ends of his tobacco-stained mustache into little points.
Westside has been living outside, on and off, since 1978, when his wife left him for the last time. He smiles when he talks about her, but they haven't spoken in years. They met just before he got drafted for Vietnam; soon after he came home, she got pregnant. "I was drinking all the time," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "She'd leave me. I'd go back on the road. I'd come home, and she'd take me back. We'd have another kid, and then it would all start again." The last time he visited his oldest girl, he found out that he had become a grandfather.
He has a hangover today and lights one cigarette after another with shaky hands. Sometimes, he says, it's hard to make it until the end of his shift, at 2:30, without a drink. After work he and Chris usually beeline for the liquor store to spend the $19 Westside has earned. The two men have that time-proven, what's-mine-is-ours sort of companionship. Given their way of life, there isn't much to spend money on, both agree--tobacco, liquor. Meals, showers, and laundry can be had at Catholic Charities. "I found these on the floor," Westside recalls, pointing at his jeans.
Upstairs, janitors are cleaning what's come to be known as Secure Waiting, which the agency runs for Hennepin County. The space was created in 1995 when the county started denying free shelter to people without children or a qualifying disability. The room has a couple of showers and a bathroom off to one side. Doors open at 5:00 p.m., after which more than 200 men jam inside to sleep (more are routinely turned away). A sign on the wall reads, "You will be asked to leave if you are found storing things in the ceiling." Men who can show proof that they have a job and are not intoxicated are welcome to spend the night on thin vinyl mats upstairs; the rest stay in here. (A quarter-mile away, at 519 Portland Ave., Catholic Charities runs another county shelter, known simply as Overflow, which allows 100 men to sleep on the concrete floor. It was previously an animal experimentation lab, and before that a hyperbaric chamber used in the treatment of severe burns, infections, and wounds that wouldn't heal.)
Chris sits on the edge of one of the room's wooden benches. When women were allowed to sleep here, these benches formed a kind of corral to protect them from the surrounding men. Awhile ago, the women were relocated next door, to the Salvation Army's 40-bed quarters called Sally's Place. Chris and Westside would never stay at Secure Waiting. "See all these mats?" Westside asks, indicating the stacks along the wall. "They put up 250 people a night here. I can't hardly stand the smell of my own smelly feet. You wanna smell all those feet, too?"
"A lot of people get robbed here," Chris adds. "They're afraid to go to sleep. People have had their shoes taken right off their feet."
In the reception area there's a drawer in which all the things taken from men who've set off the metal detector are kept. There are at least 40 box cutters, a few butter knives, all sorts of shears, corkscrews and screwdrivers, and a wooden-handled meat cleaver. I laugh over a pair of blunt-ended children's scissors. Westside doesn't laugh. "Those could still dig a man's heart out," he says.
Chris doesn't talk much. When he does, the sound of his own voice seems to make him nervous. Thin and tall, his dark hair swept carefully to one side, he looks quite a bit younger than Westside, though he's not. Chris did a tour of duty in Vietnam, too. The two men have passed a lot of time hashing over what happened to them there. Chris, unlike a lot of other homeless vets, isn't averse to being indoors. A few years ago, after camping with Westside for going on five years, he landed a job and met a woman who became his steady girlfriend. Westside came in for a while, sleeping on Chris's couch. When the relationship ended, they went back out together. It's been that way ever since, though lately Chris has been talking more often about going inside.
Plans were in the works for a trip South this winter, Westside says. Then he got hurt. A couple of months back, as he tells it, a stranger came to the door of Catholic Charities. Secure Waiting wasn't open yet, but Westside unlocked the place anyway. He customarily does, offering folks directions to another food bank, or shelter down the street. But when this guy found out there was no help here, he grew irate. "He gave me a big shove and I fell backward into that window," Westside remembers, pointing toward the floor-to-ceiling metal frame where jagged pieces of glass still dangle. It took 57 stitches to close the gash in his forearm.
He holds out his arm, tracing his finger down the thick purple scar that runs a good foot long. He has lost some control over his hand, which is loosely bent in a C-shaped grip. "It's worthless," Westside figures. He demonstrates how he can't even pick up his own coffee cup. His whole arm shakes with the effort, and he forces up a stunted laugh that sounds like God, this is scary for a man who has always done for himself. Surgery might help, or so say the doctors who sewed him shut, but it could also mean more nerve damage. A personal-injury attorney Westside consulted says he thinks there's a case. If Catholic Charities settles, he'd like to buy a little piece of land, somewhere in Minnesota. He'd put up a tipi big enough to accommodate him and Chris. With a potbellied stove, he thinks, they'd be good down to 60 below.
Westside and the others who've jumped from the truck are hurrying through the snow to get to the Triangle. Gnat hangs back to help Little John, but he shrugs her off and won't let anyone carry his overstuffed backpack. "I just don't let people do that, if you know what I mean," he says struggling to maneuver his crutches over the railroad tracks. "Maybe you'll see our hawk," he says then, as he peers up at the sky.
"Yeah, we have these two hawks that come here all the time," Gnat chimes in. "They're huge and--"
Little John interrupts: "They have, like, a seven-foot wingspan or something. It's amazing." There ensues some discussion about how the pair of hawks might be related. Gnat thinks they might be brother and sister.
Little John's bandages are thoroughly soaked now. Every few steps he lets go a moan. His face looks as if it is about to crumple into tears, and he motions us forward. He'll catch up, just go ahead, just go.
Gnat sips from her bottle. She has been living outside for three years. She's in her late 20s but looks younger. Her face is without lines, and her hair has been twisted and balled up under her hat so she won't look so much like a woman out here. That's easier to do in the winter, because she wears the same bulky military gear that the men do. Getting by has been harder for Gnat since Little John's injury forced him inside. Backtrack and the others, she says, look after her now.
Gnat's face has turned red in the bitter wind and she's coughing. Between breaths her lungs gurgle, with a liquid sound that could mean pneumonia. She's got a couple of good sleeping bags, she says, so she can bear the cold down to zero. When it's really cold, Gnat and the few others she passes the days with curl up in parking ramps ("We kind of spoon in together to cut the wind").
When the temperature drops really low, she goes inside. If she can get into a "decent" place, like Simpson Shelter in Minneapolis, she says. But the 40 beds there are drawn by lottery and she has often been turned away after a long time in line. Gnat heard about a new overnight space for women, in a church basement near the intersection of Franklin and Chicago avenues, "But I'm kind of leery of the neighborhood," she says. "It's scary at night."
In the Triangle, several crisscrossed logs serve as benches. Sleeping bags have been spread over them so our pants won't get wet. A No Parking sign at the edge of the clearing has been altered with a scribble to read No Barking. Plastic and glass vodka bottles bob up out of the new snow. Two men are mixing their spirits with Mountain Dew. Chris, who beat the truckload to camp, is sticking with the usual, Natural Ice beer.
Not long ago, he says, a city worker at a site nearby noticed the men drinking and brought over a 12-pack. Most of the time there's no quarrel between them and city workers. Bridge crews often swing by to give warning before they start cleanup operations. That gives the group time to move their gear. In mid-December, there was a communication snafu, though, and Little John lost two good sleeping bags. By his account, the police had given him permission to hide his belongings under the bridge, but then a Public Works crew moved in and took everything to the dump. It was during the next cold snap, a couple of weeks later, that Little John's foot was severely frostbitten.
Mike Kennedy, an engineer with the city, says there isn't any extra storage space at the Office of Public Works, so the possessions his department's cleaning crews come across often get trashed. "It's pretty rare," he says, "that something of value is there, although I know that's a relative thing. We've never pulled anything out of anyone's hands." To his knowledge, most of the calls to shut down camps come from the Minneapolis Police Department.
Little John has had the worst luck, but all of them say they've had gear seized at one time or another. Backtrack, Little John, and Paul recount episodes when officers have come into camp, day or night, and ordered them to leave immediately, without their things. Little John says he spent a weekend in jail last summer when an officer asked for identification and he didn't have any on him.
Sharon Lubinski, the inspector in charge of the MPD's downtown command, calls the accusations of police forcing homeless people to evacuate without their possessions "a myth." Gear and identification documents are impounded, she adds, but never destroyed. Rather, she says, officers allow people in the camps to take their belongings with them if they happen to be at the site during a sweep; if the site is vacant, the police inventory the bedding, food, clothes, and valuables they find and store them at the station. People are always welcome, Lubinski stresses, to come in and claim their stuff.
Jeff Parr says that expecting homeless people to do that is just plain unrealistic. In his experience, most of them fear being arrested or harassed by police should they be seen heading for the Property and Evidence room, in city hall. What's more, it would be difficult to tell their possessions from anyone else's, since they rarely have name labels, and many items--like donated generic sleeping bags--are identical. Besides, Parr adds, "All the people I've talked to think things are being incinerated. I don't know where they got that idea. I believe that they're being warehoused, but I can't convince anyone of that."
At the request of some advocates for the homeless, Anne Quincy, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, has visited with camp dwellers about their allegations of property destruction and mistreatment by the MPD. She says municipal ordinances that ban camping, panhandling, public urination, and loitering put police in the position of enforcing laws that "criminalize homelessness." Because of these laws, she says, encampments are routinely demolished and homeless citizens end up with extensive legal records, or as Quincy puts it, "laundry lists of petty things that they wouldn't be ticketed for if they had homes."
She and other attorneys at Legal Aid are currently in the very preliminary stages of research into possible legal action against the City of Minneapolis, on the grounds that enforcing ordinances that pertain almost exclusively to the actions of homeless people is unconstitutional. "People's civil rights are violated," Quincy argues, "when a certain set of laws is applied to only one group"--in this case, campers whose shelters are destroyed by police and who are punished for vagrancy with fines and jail time in accordance with city ordinances.
A similar approach has been taken by legal-rights attorneys in cities across the nation, including Cleveland, Cambridge, and Los Angeles, where lawsuits on behalf of homeless citizens are now wending their way through the courts. There may be some hope for homeless Minneapolis residents, if what happened in Miami recently is any predictor: There the city last year began issuing checks of $1,500 each to 200 homeless plaintiffs who, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully argued their civil-rights case in U.S. District Court. It took 11 years of legal wrangling and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in defense expenses.
Things aren't going well at the Triangle. Folks are yelling and drinking, and Westside keeps telling everyone to pipe down. Jay, who came along for the ride, is staggering around behind us; he says something that makes no sense, though we all hear "orgasms." Westside is on him immediately, defending the female sensibilities. Later Westside will say that fighting is just part of what happens when they drink. "It doesn't mean anything."
In an instant guys are spitting and shoving. Jay falls backward over one of the logs. That ruckus is mostly over, but Little John, who has been off in the trees to the right, starts crying. He accuses everyone of "making fun of him" and he doesn't want to be out here anymore. He comes flailing toward us, dragging his backpack, and the group scatters.
Jeff Parr goes to get the truck. He's going to have to drive through the brush and retrieve Little John, whose foot is in bad shape. The sky is still gray and it's snowing as the sun sets. The wind is picking up. Paul asks if anyone wants to go somewhere and sign for cash with him. "I gotta make a little money today," he says.
"You never should've come out here, man!" Backtrack is trying to help Little John shoulder his pack and stagger toward the truck. But he doesn't want help. He flings his arms out, forcing his companions to back away. The effort throws him off balance and he ends up on his back in the snow. He lies there for a minute before letting a friendly hand help him to his feet. His bony shoulder blades poke out of his coat like bird wings.
"I've gotta go. I'll see you later," says Gnat, kissing Little John lightly on the lips before turning to leave. Backtrack is standing a few feet away, waiting.
Gnat takes a few steps before Little John responds, "Fine, go then."
Tears are rolling down his face, and we're all stopped dead in the snow.
Gnat turns back.
"Just go, okay? Bye." Little John waves at her, even though her face is nearly touching his.
"Both of us won't get in anywhere tonight," she pleads. "You have to get inside."
This back-and-forth goes on for a while. Most everyone else--Westside and Chris, Jay and, finally, Backtrack--has left by now. Jeff is back with the truck, and Paul, who declined a pair of the ridiculous oven mitts earlier, is now happy to put them on. He heads off in the direction of the highway, with the baby-blue hand warmers protruding from the sleeves of his goon suit.
Gnat picks up Little John's pack and hauls it over to the idling vehicle. "We'll figure it out," she says, smiling at him over her shoulder. Jeff spends half an hour on the phone trying to get them in somewhere, just for the night. Gnat can stay at the Salvation Army's Special Needs Unit, where a nurse can listen to her lungs. Things aren't looking so good for Little John. He has been kicked out of Simpson Shelter, where he has been staying--doctor's orders--for a few nights. He won't say what happened, but he thinks he might be able to smooth things out by talking to a nurse there. We drop them off at the McDonald's at 24th Street. For now their plan is to gather up what money they've got and eat something. They can sit here for a while, inside.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Steven Timm charged with animal cruelty for harassing, drowning deer
- Cataclysmic boredom propels Stewart Mills into 2016 congressional race
- Man goes to meet prostitute with a trunk full of plastic and a giant empty suitcase