The tension was palpable as the little parlor at Fletcher’s Ice Cream, 1509 Marshall Street NE, filled up with members of the Sheridan business community and people from a homeless encampment on 13th Street NE. They were all there to talk with Third Ward Council Member Steve Fletcher (“No relation to the business,” he quipped) about the encampment and public safety.
Although the July 15 meeting was one of Fletcher’s scheduled meet-and-greets, recent activities in and around the homeless encampment took center stage in the conversation. If Fletcher had other topics to talk about, they were swept off the table while people on both sides aired their grievances and talked about how to handle problems in the community.
A July 10 fire at the encampment had set the community on edge. Rich Waryan, owner of Minnesota Organ Service, sent the Northeaster a video clip from a surveillance camera that showed a thick cloud of black smoke rising from the encampment; excited voices can be heard in the background.
On July 14, business owners near the encampment found bullet holes in a work van and dock truck.
Waryan fired off an email to city and park officials. “The small business owners and residents in the neighborhood surrounding the Sheridan Veteran’s Memorial homeless encampment have had enough,” he wrote. “There have been overdoses, fires, discarded drug paraphernalia, used condoms, piles of vomit, excessive trash, human feces and many other major concerns and hazards to public health and safety surrounding this encampment.”
He said the owners of Bunny’s Bar & Grill NE had experienced financial losses because patrons were accosted by panhandlers on the restaurant’s deck. Contacted the next day, Bunny’s co-owner Gary Rackner added that the use of the building’s restrooms for towel bathing and drug use has also been an issue. “We want to have empathy for homeless people but we don’t want it affecting us. There’s got to be better ways if people want help, to get them help,” Rackner said.
Sculptor Nicholas Legeros was unable to attend the meeting, but sent copies of a letter addressed to Fletcher. He wrote, “The new $1.5 million park goes unused. In the past month three stolen cars have been left in front of my building. I watched the Park Department bring eleven vehicles to the site to remove two dump truck loads of trash from the banks of the Mississippi that the homeless saw fit to discard.” He concluded, “Remove the encampment.”
Other Sheridan citizens sought to calm the rhetoric. Amity Foster often bikes past the encampment. “People in the encampment have social and safety needs, too. What can we do to support people living there?” she asked.
Anna Pasic, a volunteer who works with people at the camp, said, “Removal is dehumanizing.”
Bob Chouinard, who owns Big Event Productions, said, “We have been here since 1996. This is our home. We try to do what we can; we bring food [to the encampment]. Why can’t we do something to help? I don’t need bullets coming at me.” He suggested helping one person or group per week get back on their feet.
Leaders from the encampment were not shy about speaking up. Dean, the father of twin 7-year-old girls, said, “We’re trying to get a home together. People come and take pictures of us and record videos. We don’t want to be memorialized. There are some bad apples in our neighborhood, but everyone in the camp is not bad. Everybody wants to live good and have a nice life. You think people really want to live this way?”
His thoughts were echoed by a woman who said she’d been homeless for 14 months. “I worked as a substitute teacher in St. Paul, and for the TSA before that,” she said. “I just went through a divorce. I don’t want to live like this,” she sobbed. The woman next to her gave her a hug and said, “That fire scared me half to death.”
Derrick, also known as “Phoenix,” said he came from a well-to-do family, but “took my own steps.” He said people in the camp have values and morals. He called the camp self-governing. When asked about the trash at the site, he said, “We try to keep it nice. We asked the city for a dumpster.”
Fletcher said eviction just pushes the homeless to another neighborhood. “There has to be a process,” he said. He mentioned that the city had just received $12 million in Recovery Act money that will be put toward transitional housing. He also mentioned a women-only shelter coming to Ward 3, a hotel conversion in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, that’s coming soon. “We need to have options for people,” he said.
Waryan asked if the homeless could “look out” for area businesses at night. Another business owner suggested calling the police if they observed any wrongdoing, which brought a chorus of “No! Never call the police!”
Dean said, “We need to communicate with each other,” which prompted volunteer Jennifer Hotovec Haug, an unofficial liaison for the encampment, to ask for the emails of business owners to keep the dialogue going.
Ultimately, the fate of the encampment may be determined by outside forces. There are concerns that the July 10 fire may have left some health risks in the area. And Xcel Energy will soon need to do some work on its transformers near the encampment. Fletcher said he did not know the timeline.