James Hudson and Richard Greggersen cruised the perimeter of the wood processing lot in Hudson’s old Cadillac. Giant piles of wood chips and sawdust leaked steam under a steady rain. The fenced-in lot, where Minneapolis takes diseased trees to be shredded, is less than 150 feet from the front door of a new housing development for 60 homeless veterans.
“You should come here on a nice sunny day,” said Hudson. “You will not believe the smell.”
“And the rats and mice,” said Greggersen. He pointed to the vets’ home, then the wood lot. “Warm building. Free food.”
Hudson and Greggersen don’t live at the Upper Post Veterans Community, but they have been on a mission to get the massive pile of wood debris moved away from the buildings where the homeless vets now live, inside the former horse stables of Fort Snelling. The project was launched by CommonBond Communities, a nonprofit developer of low-income housing, and supported by money from foundations, corporations and government entities.
The wood processing site has been there for almost 20 years. It was supposed to be gone by the time the vets began to move in last year. Instead, it has only grown, and now Hudson and Greggersen fear that the smell, the blowing dust and perhaps dangerous chemicals are hazardous to the vets. Hudson and Greggersen say many of the vets housed in the building are afraid to speak up because they are just relieved to finally have a roof over their heads.
“A lot of these guys have been busted down,” said Greggersen. “They are afraid that if they speak up they’ll be out in the streets again.”
So, Hudson and Greggersen have become their voice. The two met in college and both served in Vietnam. They were golfing at the nearby course when they followed a rat to the wood piles, then discovered that homeless vets lived in the building directly across the small parking lot.
They have called politicians. They have called the Minneapolis Park Board and City Council members. They have walked around the facility with representatives from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
But the wood piles are still here.
“You have people’s health and welfare in jeopardy,” said Hudson. “The place is so treacherous.”
Hudson pulled his car into the lot for the veterans community and pointed to a gully that had been dug near the driveway to catch rain runoff.
“Breeding ground for the Zika virus,” he said. “The PCA said that was a problem.”
Hudson said a couple of residents have told him they were suffering respiratory issues due to the dust. “It got so bad last year they had to put air monitors in the apartments,” he said.
Hudson said the machines that grind the trees crank all day long, a noisy backdrop for the vets, some of whom have had mental health problems. He said the machines were turned off for the ribbon cutting, but the next day, they were running again. Some of the officials the two buddies have called seemed “callous” to the vets’ plight.
“During this process I learned the phrase ‘not in my purview,’ ” said Hudson.
Minneapolis Park Board officials, however, say they have been trying to resolve the issue for more than three years, but a deal to move wood processing to another location fell through at the last moment. They still have to remove trees infected with emerald ash borer and other diseases.
“When the [veterans] project started to develop we have been more than willing to move the site,” said Justin Long, assistant superintendent for environmental stewardship. “We’d move it today if we could.”
Long said the park board has explored 14 sites, each one having regulatory restrictions or other problems or would cause similar issues to the one with the veterans site. Long said the diseased trees don’t pose a toxic problem for nearby residents, but acknowledged that dust, smell, traffic and noise were a nuisance. He said they are in the final approval process for another location and hope to move the site as soon as possible.
Long acknowledged that the two vets had been determined in trying to move the dial on the issue, calling the park board 30 to 40 times and bringing it all the way to U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
“We are trying to be good neighbors,” said Long. “It’s been an ongoing struggle. I know the patience is waning for the vets.”
“They’ve been blowing that by us for the last six months,” Hudson replied. “We want to get this lot out of here and let these vets get well.”
“OK, we’re just a couple of old vets,” said Greggersen. “Everything we’ve brought up has been brushed aside. We got out and made it. A lot of guys didn’t. That’s who we are fighting for.”