Jose Gonzalez awakes at daybreak under a bridge on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis on one side of a concrete wall. On the other are cyclists training in colorful jerseys, commuters pedaling sluggishly to work and pedestrians of all ages and speeds.
Gonzalez lies wedged in the acute angle between the wall that supports the bridge piers and a steep bridge slope. The roofer-construction worker gets to sleep each night in his concrete boudoir by curling his mattress for cushioning against the two surfaces.
“I just fold it and make it like a taco,” he said. “I’m the taco.”
More than 5,000 people use the 5.7-mile greenway on peak days, but most of them are oblivious to a homeless population that may number several dozen people. Most bivouac in the mile between Hennepin Avenue and Interstate 35W, typically masked by bridge walls or greenery.
The two populations live in different worlds. One is housed and healthy. The other sleeps outside, often beset by alcoholism or other substance abuse or mental health problems. While they live mostly in peaceful coexistence, some tensions arise.
Phillips neighborhood resident Ted Becker, who walks the greenway often in warmer weather, estimates he’s called 911 to help homeless people in distress at least a half-dozen times while others whiz or trot past prone bodies. He keeps his distance but said he’s never had any issues with those living in the trench.
Adrienne Fox, training for her first marathon, runs the greenway early most mornings but said she’s never been approached by a transient.
Tom Clarkson, who walks the shadier side favored by the homeless because it’s easier on his joints, said, “They don’t seem particularly aggressive. I don’t think I’ve ever had them ask me for money.”
But there are spillover effects, and Rand Retterath, who lives near the greenway and an adjoining park, has peppered public officials and others with missives and photos complaining of litter, drug paraphernalia and drinking. He sees homelessness as a social and ethical issue, but he also sees it as a livability issue for neighbors. “Somebody should take responsibility for this,” he said, noting that he frequently collects 5-gallon buckets full of trash in the park near the Midtown Exchange.
Under some bridges, there’s a welter of twisted bedding, shirts, underwear, socks, shoes, cardboard, pizza boxes, old grocery bags, the remains of fruit, utensils and almost always beer cans — Hamm’s, Pabst, Coors, Miller. Sometimes there’s harder stuff. And there is almost always feces nearby.
“So it’s a health issue. You smell it sometimes at a distance,” said Donovan Harmel, caretaker for the greenway’s Vera’s Garden, near Dupont Avenue S. A city crew has to spray under bridge abutments along the greenway for bridge inspectors, cleaning away human fecal matter along with bird droppings and road salt.
There are transients who take pride in cleaning up after themselves, such as Morgan Murphy and her companion Nick, who said he no longer uses his last name. They’re riding the rails from Chicago to Seattle with their 5-week-old puppy, Scrabble.
But it’s difficult for people living without toilets, trash cans or even trash bags, said Monica Nilsson of St. Stephen’s Human Services, a 20-year veteran of dealing with homeless people.
Too few shelter beds
Several campers along the greenway, including Gonzalez, say they live under bridges because they lack income for apartments despite doing day labor. There are other barriers that keep them outside.
The 150 beds at three church-affiliated shelters in south Minneapolis are distributed by lottery. At one recent lottery, Nilsson said, 99 people competed for 17 open beds. Moreover, the men’s lottery is on a different day from the women’s, causing uncertainty for couples. Some homeless people have alcohol problems that bar them from shelters, and others can’t handle living in a large downtown shelter for mental health reasons.
Nilsson worries about the vulnerability of those who sleep on the verge of the greenway. She and others say that any trouble, however rare, is more likely to come from bands of young men than homeless people. A volunteer greenway bike patrol tries to keep eyes on the corridor, especially after dark.
“These people are not harming greenway users. They’re keeping to themselves. It’s more of an aesthetic thing,” said Soren Jensen, executive director of the greenway’s advocacy coalition. Emily Green, who lives overlooking the greenway, called it safer than walking a typical city block, with lights, call boxes and especially people. Still, added Nilsson, “It can be scary if you encounter a group of men who are drinking or a person who is in psychosis.”
People who camp there typically stay in small groups for safety, but sometimes the cluster at the bridge where Gonzalez lives reaches 10 people, especially if there’s rain.
Life outside can be difficult, said a woman who identified herself only as Rainy. “It’s irritating. It’s hard sometimes. Some people are drinking. Sometimes people are too loud,” she said. “If we get in the shelter, we’re in the shelter. If not, we’re here.”
St. Stephen’s outreach to the homeless tries to get them on a road to long-term stability. The number of homeless camps along the Mississippi River is down because of outreach, said Mikkel Beckmen, director of a city-county effort to address homelessness.
St. Stephen’s outreach workers are focusing their efforts on the greenway through the end of the month, after Retterath’s prodding. The group around Gonzalez has shrunk as some have gotten shelter beds.
Transients have been living in the greenway’s trench at least as far back as the Depression. It’s secluded and freight trains could be hopped there. But trains have long since stopped running on most of the greenway’s roughly 6 miles. The redevelopment along the middle section of the greenway has caught some veteran freight-hoppers by surprise. “All these fancy high-rises around here,” Murphy marveled.
But people like her and the people whizzing by on Treks might as well come from different planets for all they interact.
“They don’t bother us. We don’t bother them,” she said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438; Twitter: @brandtstrib