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JUSTIN GLAWE | BEMIDJI PIONEER A homeless man sleeps on a bridge over the Mississippi River in late June. Below the bridge, some homeless gather to drink out of sight.

Homeless in Bemidji: Costs are high for all involved

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In part one of our series, “Homeless in Bemidji,” we introduced a group of four homeless who live on the streets, and seek shelter wherever they can. They drank together July 5 as downtown teemed with tourists and visitors for the holiday weekend. In part two, the costs of incarceration for one homeless man are discussed, as are the unknown costs of dealing with a group of men and women identified as “persistently homeless.”

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On the second floor of the Beltrami County Jail, five stalls, separated by block wall partitions, sit silent. The inmate side is dark. They’re not in use this day, July 26, and haven’t been for about six months.

The only way to talk to the incarcerated is via telephone and video screen. There is just one of those, but you can login through Beltrami County’s website and talk with inmates from home.

Behind a cubicle wall, where visitors sit in a chair in front of the screen, an inmate’s voice crackled through the earpiece of what looks like a pay phone. There is little privacy. The growing number of people waiting to talk to their friends and loved ones can hear, for the most part, what each inmate is saying.

At 1:10 p.m., one woman is on the phone and another is waiting for her turn.

“Cloudy as hell, rainy and just cold out today,” the woman said.

It’s been almost a month since the day Melvin Kingbird, Lawrence Goggleye and Shelly Whitefeather got drunk near the encampment of carnival workers on Independence Day weekend. Andy Reed, homeless like the other three, was there as well that day, but he lay slumbering and groaning on the ground next to his drinking pals. He was in jail on the “cold” day in late July. Melvin was, too.

“I haven’t seen him. I haven’t been able to talk to him,” Melvin said of Andy, who was released a short time later. “He’s in a different cell block than me.”

Police know Melvin and Andy by name. They know many of their friends, too. But unlike the bank of names that exists in the minds of every cop, Melvin and Andy aren’t known for their heinous crimes, or necessarily for their danger to public safety. The reason police know the pair, and many other homeless men and women in Bemidji, can be described in three words: “check the welfare.”

The majority of calls police receive regarding the homeless come from passersby concerned with an individual’s welfare. Often times the person is sleeping, sprawled out on a park bench, lying in the grass. Or, maybe, they’re stumbling drunkenly through the streets.

“Part of the education is, everyone is entitled to civil rights,” Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said recently. “There’s nothing illegal about being drunk and sitting on a bench.”

Carrying an open container of alcohol, however, is against the law. As are some of the actions that often come as a result of draining the bottle, according to Mastin.

“It becomes problematic when those intoxicated individuals escalate it and become argumentative, when they panhandle while being intoxicated, that’s when it becomes an issue,” he said.

From May 1 to July 31, Bemidji police were called 141 times to deal with seven homeless men and women, according to data compiled by Kay Swanson, records guru for the Bemidji Police Department and the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office. Melvin was the subject of 23 calls in that time; his brother, Conrad Kingbird, 32 calls. Andy, often seen with his white hair pulled back into a ponytail and wearing a worn black leather jacket, was the subject of 34 calls to police.

During that stretch, Butch Ryan, the homeless man who drowned in Lake Bemidji on June 21, prompted fewer than 10 calls.

The majority of the calls for Butch and the six others were welfare checks. But, Mastin said, sometimes police are notified because the homeless were simply “making people uncomfortable.”

A few days after Independence Day weekend, Melvin made one woman uncomfortable enough to prompt his arrest.

A price to pay

The cost to the taxpayer for Melvin’s incarceration is known — $76.57 for each day in the county jail, according to data compiled by jail supervisor Cindy Borowski.

In 2012, 863 women spent at least one night in jail. That compares to 2,011 men. The women spent a total of 7,348.8 days behind bars. The men were locked up for 32,068.4 days, Borowski said. The average daily population was just over 20 for women, and just under 90 for men. The jail had a budget in 2012 that was $1,087.50 shy of $3 million.

The $76.57 taxpayers spend each day to keep Melvin and his brother, Conrad, who was arrested July 17 for urinating in public, is arrived at by taking the jail’s budget ($2,998,921.50), dividing it by the average daily population (107.63) and dividing again by 366, the number of days between the last and most recent calculations.

The jail, built in 1980, was originally designed to hold 66 inmates. Each day, the facility holds almost twice that.

But other costs are much more difficult to determine. For the 141 times police were called in three months to deal with seven of what Sarah Einerson of Churches United said is a “persistently homeless” population of more than two dozen, there are plenty of variables that make estimating the cost of each call arduous. How long was the officer tied up dealing with the situation? How many officers were involved? What are the salaries of those officers? How long did the police car sit, its engine idling? All would have to be answered — 141 times — to reach a specific cost to the taxpayer. And that’s just for seven people in three months.

But, “it’s not just the officer responding,” Mastin said. “It includes dispatch that takes the call, records who must code the report for the state reporting requirements (and a) supervisor’s time to review the report.”

Just like a bar has its regulars, police do, too. Mastin estimated that that group, the ones who helped to generate those 141 calls to police, to be between 10 and 12 people. For that group, their predicament is borne of their own choosing, according to Mastin.

“There are options for people to find help, to get out of these circumstances, but the majority choose to remain in this lifestyle,” he said.

Petty crimes

Melvin said he doesn’t know why he was arrested. He pleaded not guilty to the charge he faces — fifth-degree assault, a felony.

“Why would I plead guilty?” he said over the loud phone at the jail, professing his innocence.

The last Melvin claimed to know, he was on the waterfront near the statues of Paul and Babe with his brother and a few others. Another homeless man, Francis Smith, or Zapata as he’s known, was there, Melvin said. And so was a woman named “H.H.” in the criminal complaint filed against Melvin. It was about 7:30 p.m., police said, when they were called to the area. H.H. described a man fitting Melvin’s description — down to the tattoos on his forearms that didn’t look “professionally done” — and police took Melvin into custody. He’s accused of harassing the woman, grabbing her by the forearm and leaning toward her neck, saying “your man wouldn’t mind if I gave you a hickey?”

Surely Melvin’s attorney has told him the details of the charge, but just a week after his first court appearance, and several days since his last drink, Melvin maintained he didn’t know why he was in jail.

He has been behind bars before; so has Andy. When you look up names on the state’s courts website, the charges usually sit high on the page, requiring no downward scrolling of the mouse. Not so with Melvin Charles Kingbird and his Feb. 6, 1963 birthday.

The list is long and begins in 1983. The charge: simple robbery. From there it goes to aggravated DWI and fleeing a peace officer. Then theft, another DWI and concealing a minor child — and that’s just by May 1990.

After that Melvin racked up dozens more cases, including several DWIs, almost a dozen thefts, a few charges of obstructing the legal process and one more fleeing police. Also among the charges are giving police a false name. At one point, Melvin Charles Kingbird went by Ronald James Fisher.

In 2008, Melvin kicked off his petty Beltrami County criminal career. The charges were familiar: DWI and fleeing a peace officer. He had four cases in 2011, mostly thefts, and eight in 2012.

Melvin is a career petty criminal, and he may soon be a father. Whitefeather, lying on Melvin’s lap July 5, said she is pregnant with his child. A previous pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.

“We’re trying,” Melvin said that day.

A tense relationship

Not all the homeless, though, have as extensive of a record as Melvin does. Several men and women have said a life on the streets exacerbates their problems. Sherry Iceman, in Bemidji and searching for work, said police single out the homeless. She said they make her life more difficult.

Iceman was outside Keg ‘N Cork on the weekend of the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival when her normally buoyant demeanor turned cold after a visit from police. The bar was packed, the streets were full of tourists and competitors in the races. Iceman was standing near the door when a man stepped off a party bus and handed her a can of beer. She thanked him and took a sip.

Within seconds an officer with the Bemidji Police Department, possibly patrolling the area on what was a busy weekend for police, pulled into a nearby alley. His squad car sat in the same spot as the one that took Butch away the night before he died.

The officer exited his car and beckoned Iceman with a wag of his finger. She sheepishly approached. After a few minutes in the back of the car, Iceman was set free, but she was shaken.

“They scare me,” she said of police. She was inside the bar, with her arms crossed and eyes looking blankly at a game of pool being played in front of her. “It’s harassment, it’s prejudice, it’s racist.”

It’s none of those, though, Mastin said.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they feel singled out,” he said. “But the reality is we’re running call to call, and we don’t have time to target a certain group of people. The majority of our interactions with the homeless population are citizen-generated calls.”

“Check the welfare of an intoxicated person. …” the dispatchers say over the scanner.

Audrey Thayer, who runs the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she takes several complaints each week levied against police, not just from Native American homeless, but natives in general.

“I almost feel like they’re keeping a business alive,” she said of police. “It’s the business of law enforcement.”

Like many in Bemidji who work with the homeless, men and women who are often categorized as chronic alcoholics, Thayer has advocated for a wet house, a 24-hour facility that gives shelter regardless of a person’s level of sobriety. Einerson agreed such a facility could serve an important function. It might help to reduce incidents like the one in which Iceman was involved, they said, and it would provide a place for intoxicated homeless to get off the streets and out of harm’s way.

Thayer said police have a difficult job — “they’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and I know there are good officers out there,” she said — but added the community as a whole has yet to properly address the issue of homelessness.

“There’s good, tax-paying citizens that don’t want a wet house in their backyard, but they’re the first to call police when there’s street people out there,” she said, frustration mounting in her voice. “I just haven’t seen the compassion.”

Expensive treatment Butch requested detox the night before he died, a facility called Pine Manor located between Nevis and Akeley, but there was no room there. Instead he went to the emergency room, at a “tremendously higher cost,” than going to Pine Manor, which itself is “far more expensive than a hotel room,” Mastin said.

Pine Manor is reimbursed with Beltrami County tax dollars, primarily for transportation costs. So was Butch’s trip to the hospital the night before he died. Whether he actually wanted to sober up — after decades of alcoholism — when he requested detox after being picked up outside a downtown bar, will never be known.

“If you’ve been a chronic alcoholic your entire life, or for years, is two days, three days, one day, enough?” Mastin said.

The requests for detox increase in extreme weather — “smoldering heat” or “freezing cold” — and sometimes “when they’re out of booze,” according to Mastin

But often, “they just want a warm bed.”

Butch was the subject of nine calls to police between May 1 and July 31. Like Melvin, Butch’s criminal career involves petty crimes, but far less of them. The most serious, theft of a motor vehicle, occurred in 2003. Then came a 2009 DWI in Clearwater County followed by a public consumption of alcohol charge in Beltrami County in 2012.

Butch’s rap sheet ends with another public consumption charge from January, and his burden to taxpayers ended June 21, when police were called to deal with the 63-year-old one last time.

His final resting place wasn’t in the jail, or with his friends Andy Reed and Sherry Iceman, or the the Rev. Bob Kelly’s Peoples Church, or Pine Manor, or a park bench or a patch of grass. There was no warm bed, just the sand of Nymore Beach and the cool water of Lake Bemidji that enveloped his torso, filled his lungs and ended his life.

The 10th and final call.

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Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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