The Inn of Last Resort

IT WAS LIGHTS out at 10 p.m. in the front room of the economic assistance offices in downtown Minneapolis last week--a daytime public space turned nighttime homeless shelter across the street from City Hall. Only the couple on their honeymoon was ready for bed. They curled up under a standard-issue blanket in the corner, in what little free floor space remained, and rocked each other to sleep. Across the room a man, muttering to himself, peeled off his soaked boots and socks, pulled a deck of cards from his hip pocket, and dealt a round of blackjack. Three guys circled in and anted up with some of the leftover grapes and donuts a local church had donated by the box the day before. Someone lit up a smoke in the back corner, and launched another string of loose, wet coughs. Someone sprinkled a coat of talc over the reek of stale clothes, lay down and started in snoring under the counter along the west wall, where a clerk on night duty filed applications for food stamps.

This has been business as usual since last September, when city officials voted to open the welfare office after hours to anyone who doesn't fit the increasingly stringent criteria for other shelters around town. Dan Engstrom, who heads up economic assistance programs for Hennepin County, says the room--basically an oversized, open lobby with bathrooms and moonlighting security guards, with the ambience of a Greyhound station--is a sort of shelter by default, a last resort for folks who can't get in anywhere else. These days even the promises of so-called entitlement funding from above are drying up, and the local shelter network is among the first public works to find itself being weaned off the federal dole fast.

"We're really feeling the squeeze from funding cuts," Engstrom says. "Shelter use is on the rise, there are more and more people without housing. So we've had to prioritize the available space. At the assistance office, we're basically down to getting people out of the elements. It's bare bones. No beds. No food. No amenities."

Like most of the 100 or so spending their nights on the floor, John Westhusing's got a long and winding story that brought him here. A "yes-sir, no-sir, military old man;" a few months on one coast, a few months on the other; a crash and burn on the highway outside Round Up, Montana; a long stint squatting in abandoned warehouses over by the river; and now, at age 19, this--what John, like most of the residents here, calls the "in between" time: in between this shelter and the next, in between jobs, checks, apartments, towns, whatever. In between now and the next thing that happens. He glances around at the piles of bedding, each a little stake. He's the youngest one here.

"Thing is, that's not me," John says, gesturing at a row of men sleeping along the wall. "I don't see myself in any of those guys. It's just some quick bad time for me right now, between my first night here and getting on with things." Later, one of those guys leans over and says, "That kid, hey, that was me 20 years ago, saying the exact same thing about some other old bum. It's like the line on that poster over there"-- which reads You may not have a home, but you still have a vote--"time passes, politics keeps on steady-as-she-goes in America, and you're still in here. Good luck, kid."

"Yeah, yeah," John says just before rolling over to sleep. "Thing I know is, the real trick to surviving is to stay portable. You don't want to get tied down and stranded. I heard an expert on the radio saying the same thing--with everything crumbling, you know, with jobs and houses and money and all, you've got to stay quick on your toes. Ready for change." He empties the contents of his backpack onto the bed. These are the portable, essential basics, his "keys to homeless success."

Here, he says, I'll take you on a tour of my stuff: Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book ("which I did, in fact, steal"). A comb. Nail clippers. Calvin Klein's Escape cologne ("your basic deodorant"). A bus pass. A food stamp receipt. A ticket stub from last night's show at the Quest Club. A thesaurus. Two journals full of scrawled poetry. A lighter. Three flashlights. A folder full of official documents. A black pager. A black condom. An extra black shirt. An extra pair of black socks. A black satin jacket. A fold-up, three-in-one pillow-blanket-overcoat combination ("useful beyond belief"). Black nail polish and black lipstick ("for image"). Black gloves. The pile of things feels suddenly too intimate, as if everything you'd want to know about a man's life could be piled on a public floor in three minutes and catalogued.

"That's it. That's how I live. A take-it-with-you life, which you've got to have these days. As you can see, I'm into black. See, I'm obsessed with the crow. I dress like a crow. I live off the streets like a crow. One day I'll just turn into a crow and fly off." (Josie Rawson)

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