By Robb Murray
---- — 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.
These were just four of the men at the Salvation Army men's shelter on a recent chilly night.
Each year, during the warmer months, there are dozens of people who are without a place to stay. They sleep under bridges, in parks, in malls — wherever they can find a place to stay until they're told to leave.
But in Minnesota, the climate come November takes “sleeping under a bridge” away as an option. That's why every year on Nov. 1, the Salvation Army's men's shelter opens. Any man who needs a place to stay can come here. They do not accept women. (Women can go to Partners for Affordable Housing's Welcome Inn and Theresa House.)
On any given night when the shelter is open, a collection of men will gather. Some will stay a few days, some will stay all winter and into spring.
These four shared their stories with The Free Press.
He talks a mile a minute, and almost every word of it is interesting.
Vickers hails from Lawrence, Kansas, a progressive town he says treats homeless people better than anywhere else he's ever been. They cared for homeless people there, he said, instead of looking down upon them. That's how he feels here, he said. "Looked down upon."
He's traveled the country a lot — out to the coasts, throughout the Midwest — all the while never having permanent housing. He doesn't even like the word “homeless.” He prefers “houseless.”
“Home is where the heart is,” he said.
Vickers, who said he's been without permanent housing since he was 15, came to Mankato with a girl. She drove around the country as a traveling saleswoman for a chain of nightclubs. Vickers followed.
“You can be resentful. Other people have it made and you're on the streets cold and alone. It sucks, but eventually the lifestyle hardens ya,” he said. “I think homeless people are the strongest people out there because they're extremely resilient, we handle the worst conditions. I've slept in a tent in 6 inches of snow. I've been there. Most of the time I sleep in a tent. I've slept under bridges, I've slept in a park.”
Vickers claims he's been sober for seven months. He also said he's tired of the homeless experience. He says he's homeless by choice but also says that, if he wanted to settle down somewhere, it'd be difficult for him to do so. He lost a job recently at a local restaurant, but he says he's trying to turn his life around.
“I'm 28 now,” he says. “There's no reason why I shouldn't have a car or a house.”
Vickers was arrested recently after an argument at a bar. A man told police Vickers pulled a knife on him, a claim Vickers denies. While arrested, he says police assaulted him. But it was Vickers who was charged with assault on a police officer. Police also found drugs on him.
For his crime, he's serving five years of probation, which means he can't leave the state without risking further sanctions. He could leave if he could find work. But it's hard to find work with a criminal record, a dilemma so many homeless people face.
“I want to live within the law,” he says. “So I'm stuck here.”
Russell Miller smiles when he thinks about that girl. They met in a Texas junior high school, became close and had a fling. After high school, they parted ways and didn't speak for 20 years. While on Facebook recently, he noticed a friend request from a woman with a familiar name. That girl from junior high had tracked him down and, eventually, lured him north. Miller figured it was time to get out of Texas, anyway.
“I was living the life of crime,” he said.
What kind of crime? Drugs. Petty stuff, mostly, but enough to make it difficult to find work.
From his San Antonio home, Miller started walking. Through the hot summer sun, he says, he hoofed it 275 miles.
“That's a journey I will never take again,” he said.
Once in Dallas, he hopped on a Greyhound bus the rest of the way.
Miller said he was living with his old flame until one day they got into an argument. One thing led to another and, after some pushing and shoving, police arrived and Miller was out. He spent the night in jail.
After that, he was homleess. It's been five months. Where did he sleep at night?
“Under bridges, wherever it was dark and out of sight from the cops,” he said.
He said he's tried to get services such as food stamps (the program is now referred to as SNAP), but he's been unsuccessful. So he goes to work to his job at a temp agency, making $7.50 per hour. His money doesn't go far, though, he said.
“Smoking's a bad habit,” Miller admitted, a confession that explains where a good chunk of his money goes.
When asked why he's homeless, David Murray gives a polite — if somewhat obvious — answer.
“Lack of income,” he said.
He's only been in Mankato for eight days. In that time he's not really tried much to find work. He says his No. 1 priority is to find housing, a task he concedes will be tough without funds. He left St. Cloud for Mankato because he was down on his luck and was hoping a new city would give him renewed hope.
Murray said he's been to the Minnesota Valley Action Council and is still hopeful they'll be able to help him put together a big enough pile of money to make a deposit on an apartment. He said he thought he had a line on a place advertised in the paper. He called the number and talked to the guy and the place was available. But when he called back the next day to take the apartment, the place was rented.
He's said he's never been convicted of a felony, never had a drug or alcohol addiction problem.
“It's been five and a half months since I've had a place of my own,” he said.
Like Miller, West hails from Texas. And like Vickers, his personality matches his home state: big.
Although he was in a relationship with a man in Texas, he left to start a relationship with a man in Mankato. This venture had the blessing of the guy back in Texas, an arrangement West said is accepted in the gay community given the long history of oppression gays have experienced in Texas (where he said being gay used to be a crime).
West said that, after living with the Mankato man for a while, the relationship went sour. One domestic incident ended with a police car at the house and cooler heads prevailing. The next, however, did not. West said he assaulted the man with a coffee mug, an assault that ended with him in a jail cell and that chat-room guy gone missing.
When he got out of jail and his court case was resolved, West was without a place to stay. And he couldn't go back to Texas because that would violate the terms of his probation.
“Mankato is stuck with me,” he said.
Like so many others, he made do by sleeping wherever he could — “downtown mall, secret passages,” he said. He spent some nights behind Schwickert's but eventually gave that spot up to another homeless man whom he said needed the spot more than he did.
His most creative place, however, was at the movie theater inside the Mankato Place mall. He found the projection room door ajar one night and took up residence inside. He was actually living there already while his court case went through the system and is still hoping to get back in there to grab some stuff he left in the projectionist's room.
Before coming to the shelter, he said, he'd gone four nights without sleep.
“We all have complicated situations,” he said.