The Free Press, Mankato, MN

No Direction Home

December 8, 2013

No Direction Home: Day 1: One night in the life of the Salvation Army shelter

Some men stay a few days, some stay all winter

Inside the bunk room a guy with a paper route is already asleep. He needs to get up early to get to work, so the guys clear out to the lunch area, a room with lockers on two walls and a fridge and counter on another. That's where they hang out, anyway.

Nathan Vickers is there, shoveling cheesy noodles into a mouth with enough piercings to resemble a pin cushion. The neck skin visible under his raven, shoulder-length tresses is a canvas of body ink.

Russell Miller is there, too. He's just come out of the cold. He's in a brown leather jacket zipped up to the neck and a knit ski cap that says "The Haze." He says he once walked from San Antonio to Dallas in the middle of summer. He came to Mankato for a woman but got kicked out of her place after he got into a shoving match with her.

David Murray, an unshaven man from St. Cloud with a shirt torn at the left shoulder, is new in town. He's struggling so far to find work, but it's early. He's confident he'll find something eventually, but for now he's working for a temp agency, trying to pay his bills on $7.50 an hour.

John West may have a common name, but he's anything but common. Wearing the same shirt since September, West puzzles with a volatile intellect and Old World politeness. Wrapped from left shoulder to right hip is a string of tiny beads, slung onto which is an artifact of antiquity, he says. On the bottom is a seal — the kind people ages ago would press onto hot wax to seal envelopes — from the University of Texas, El Paso, where his dad used to teach. He came to Mankato to marry a man he'd met in an Internet chat room. It ended poorly.

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