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Homeless in Bemidji: No easy answers for the homeless, their advocates and the city

The Rev. Bob Kelly, pastor of Peoples Church, stands not far from Sherry Iceman, a homeless woman who lives at the church. It is the only place in Bemidji where intoxicated homeless are guaranteed a place to stay. MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER

EDITOR'S NOTE: In part two of our series, “Homeless in Bemidji,” the costs of incarceration for one homeless man were discussed, as were the unknown costs of dealing with a group of men and women identified as “persistently homeless.” In the final story, one homeless woman tells of her attempts to stay sober, and solutions to the sometimes intertwined issues of homelessness and alcoholism are discussed by the Rev. Bob Kelly and others.

BEMIDJI -- Sherry Iceman wanted to talk.

It was the night before the Dragonboat races, and as she sat at a picnic table near Brigid’s Cross, downtown teemed with visitors and competitors. She dismissed the crowds with a wave of her arm. As she talked, she remembered Butch Ryan, the homeless man found dead the previous month at Nymore Beach.  He was Sherry’s friend. She cursed police who she said had been unkind to her and her friends. She described her role as surrogate mother to several homeless men, which she said at times could be frustrating. And, at least that night, she expressed a desire for change.

She said she wanted to quit drinking.

“I cry all my tears for everyone else and I don’t have anything left for me,” she said, her eyes beginning to moisten.

But as soon as the tears came they were wiped away, and Sherry slammed her fist on the table. A slight display of vulnerability was immediately replaced by rage.

“They don’t (expletive) care,” she said, pointing to the passing crowds on Beltrami Avenue. “We’re invisible to them and that’s how we like it. All homeless people wish they could be invisible.”

There are three different versions of Sherry Iceman. Sober, she is thoughtful, pleasant and downright serene with a smile that prompts others to beam. Buzzed, she is irreverent, grin-happy, a smart-aleck. Drunk, she is combative, confrontational and unpredictable. Once that switch is flipped, there’s no going back until time removes the alcohol from her system.

For a nine-month period last year Sherry was sober, thanks to five months at a rehab facility in Portland. Her inpatient stay was funded by Red Lake social services, and came partly as a result of a DWI that took her driver’s license. She wanted to stay in Portland, where she was performing traditional Ojibwe ceremonies and living with family, but her ongoing DWI court case brought her back to Bemidji, she said.

Once here, she got “caught up in the crowd.”

“I was sober. I was always doing something. I loved it out there,” she said.

Now, she lives at Peoples Church, run by the Rev. Bob Kelly. She makes some money babysitting for friends and family in Ponemah, but after 10 applications at businesses in Bemidji in the past few weeks, she was no closer to getting hired as of Friday.

“From that living situation, and trying to get your life balanced, it’s a hard task,” she said of her efforts to find work.

She was sober Friday. Smiling, laughing, reading a newspaper while sitting next to Kelly at the Countryside Cafe.

She was hopeful.

“One day, I think I will quit drinking.”

The phone at Peoples Church is, for some, their sole means of communication with friends and family. Photo by Justin Glawe

A place to stay

Michael Goose got up from the couch and began shoving his finger down his throat. He had been sleeping there, in the basement of Peoples Church, as Bill Casey watched “The Wolfman” on Sept. 10. As Michael gagged, clear liquid started to soak his index finger and the webbing of his thumb. After a few attempts, a stone-cold sober Casey noticed.

“Go do that in the bathroom,” he told Michael.

He did.

“He was drinking mouthwash,” he said. “They drink it cause it gets them high. Not a drunk high, but a high high.”

Bill has been homeless since 2009. He doesn’t drink, but he does chew tobacco. A slew of medical problems put him out of work — diabetes, asthma, a bad back — so he’s given up on finding a job. Now, he’s trying to get on disability. In the meantime, he lives at Peoples Church, where he helps Chuck White run what is essentially the only place for intoxicated homeless to go in Bemidji. Bill and Chuck put out the beds on the floor of the main room of the building each night.

“Some of them are in bad shape,” Bill said of the mattresses. “Some are just sponge-type things.”

There are nine beds, and from Labor Day to Memorial Day they’re available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Peoples Church is a member of Churches United, which provides beds on a rotating basis at about a dozen houses of worship in Bemidji in wintertime. There is no permanent, 24-hour a day, seven-day a week homeless shelter here. In the summer, when Peoples Church closes its doors at night, there is nowhere to sleep but outside.

The homeless roam.

Simply put, there is no guarantee that a discovery like the one two boys made on June 21, when Butch’s body turned up on Nymore Beach after a night, and possibly day, of drinking, won't again be made. There’s no guaranteed place to stay if you’re drunk, not if Peoples Church is full, or it’s after 10 p.m. when the doors are locked. There’s no promise that another man won’t end up like Michael Jourdain, who died in 2010 near the inlet to Lake Bemidji after years of battling alcoholism.

For some, Bemidji is a place where people go to drink, and die.

“He could not beat the alcohol,” Sarah Einerson, of Churches United, said of Jourdain.

Pine Manor, the nearest detox facility, is about an hour away. For those who want to dry out, or who have simply had far too much alcohol, the options are jail, the emergency room, the Law Enforcement Center, Peoples Church, the streets or, in Butch’s case, the shores of Lake Bemidji.

The needs

Butch’s death prompted some reaction in the community. Mike Bredon, executive director of Upstream TV, hosted roundtables with members of the community on the issue of homelessness in the weeks after Butch’s body was found. In one, Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin and Mayor Rita Albrecht weighed in. And at the July 15 City Council meeting, councilor Reed Olson, whose fourth ward covers much of the downtown area where the homeless are most often seen, addressed the death of Butch.

“I hope that we can do something in the future as a community to provide aid and assistance to this most vulnerable portion of our society,” he told the council. “Right now, (the statues of) Paul and Babe is their shelter. The bridge between Lake Bemidji and Lake Irving is their shelter. They tend to be forgotten.”

Jill Hanson, a Bemidji-based photographer, saw Butch the day before his body turned up on the beach. In a blog post, she remembered holding her children a little closer that day, and expressed regret at not reaching out to Butch as he wandered. Her husband, Matt Hanson, worked with homeless youth for the past seven years at Evergreen Youth & Family Services. He recently provided a checklist of what he thought would help the group of men and women who are most likely to be the next found dead in the streets.

“Does Bemidji need a wet shelter? Sure. A detox? You bet. A homeless shelter for single adults? Absolutely. There is a colossal need in most every direction when it comes to emergency services for those who need them the most.”

Matt Hanson said there is a perception in Bemidji that providing these services would draw those from neighboring communities who may end up drunk on the streets. That shouldn’t matter, he said.

“Ultimately, people need to understand that regardless of their personal opinions on alcohol, homelessness, and mental illness, these are real people.”

Andy Reed, a 58-year-old homeless man, was friends with Butch Ryan. Photo by Justin Glawe

The elder

Some people, though, may be beyond help. Andy Reed, approaching 60-years-old after years on the streets, may be one of those who can’t be saved. If you’ve spent any amount of time downtown you’ve likely seen him — snow white hair pulled into a pony tail and beard of the same color, scuffed and scraped leather jacket and dusty jeans. Often, he’s snoozing on a street corner bench, until the nearest business calls police to have him shooed away.

Like many homeless, Andy expresses a sense of belonging with the men he calls his brothers and the women he said are sisters, but that wasn’t the case on a September night in 2002.

Near the intersection of East 27th Street and South 27th Avenue in Minneapolis, Andy and Melvin Martin Smith beat a third homeless man within inches of his life. Eugene Franklin Lewis was later pronounced dead, and a witness to the crime pointed the finger at Andy and Melvin, according to a criminal complaint filed by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

The foursome was drinking at a nearby “transient camp,” police said. After polishing off a liter of vodka, Eugene was preparing to buy more. He pulled cash from his pocket, and was knocked to the ground by Martin, who was then joined by Andy in the kicking and stomping that followed.

Eugene died of “blunt force trauma causing a brain hemorrhage, a fractured hyoid bone, a fractured left mandible and contusions to the inner neck as well as multiple other contusions and abrasions.”

Andy, who in mid-August was limping, he said, as a result of being beat up over a six-pack of beer,  himself carried out a heinous beating ostensibly over alcohol. He and Melvin served just less than eight years in prison for the crime — first-degree manslaughter.

Since then, Andy has racked up a criminal record that involves mostly petty ordinance violations — consuming alcohol in public and littering — and a few arrestable offenses — trespassing, disorderly conduct, fighting.

On Aug. 14, as Andy, Michael, Roger Ricci and a few others gathered at the waterfront gazebo, Andy shared his beers.

“Anything for my brothers,” he said.

The preacher

Matt Hanson refused to admit that some are beyond help. He is an eternal optimist.

“I would never say that for some it is too late,” he said. “I have never been a believer in that … not until their last breath.”

Kelly begrudgingly admitted that some men and women may be too far gone to save, but that does not stop him from trying. He is a man who talks calmly about his passions. His demeanor can, at times, hide the intensity of his feelings, emotions that come roaring up when challenged.

A group of red brick buildings just south of Peoples Church’s open doors belong to Beltrami County. One holds the inmates, a second is home to their judgment — the Beltrami District Courthouse — and a third is the operational center of the Bemidji Police Department and the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office. The fourth is home to Social Services, Veteran's Affairs, and Health and Human Services, among others.

The buildings take up several blocks. Their footprints cover an area that used to hold homes like the one in which Kelly's mother lives, a few doors down from the church.

"That was all poor people's housing," he said. "And they scraped it all off and built their empire."

When Kelly speaks there is much focus on poverty, and while he doesn’t like labels, Christian socialism may be the best way to describe his philosophy as a pastor. The members of his church live there, a statement not able to be said about other congregations.

He arrived in Bemidji in the early 70s, when it was a “poor place for everybody.” Now, though, things have changed not just monetarily, but culturally as well, according to Kelly.

“I think it’s more segregated,” he said of the Bemidji area. “The woods are turning into suburbia. Doctors and lawyers are buying up good pieces of land.”

Unlike Einerson and Matt Hanson, Kelly isn’t convinced a wet house, where intoxicated homeless are guaranteed shelter, would help to alleviate the often intertwined problems of alcoholism and homelessness.

The truth is, there may be no answer, Kelly said, or big money donation for a wet house, or alcohol and drug abuse treatment center, or a well-staffed and funded 24-hour homeless shelter, or a community uprising that says four homeless people dying on the streets since 2006 is too many.  

There may be no happy ending.

“There’s another tag called Christian realism that says things are just very hard,” he said.  

Like Matt Hanson, Kelly wants the community to view the homeless not as a problem that needs fixing, but neighbors who need help. He said Bemidji is “frightened” of its homeless population.

“They’re frightened of the truth. That the things they’ve striven for will disappear. You will see things that you thought were a pretty big deal in your lifetime completely go away. It’s all an allusion,” he said. “We’re not told to give people food, clothing and shelter so we can get to Heaven. It’s the right thing, that’s all.

“You’re just supposed to do it.” 

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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