At home on the Island

Share this:
August 11, 2003 // UPDATED 11:01 am - April 30, 2007
By: April Wooster
April Wooster

Three grassy Downtown street medians have become home to dozens of homeless men and women.

They call it "The Island."

A few blocks away from the well-to-do pace of Downtown, homeless adults have found an open-air haven on three consecutive medians of well-trod grass along Royalston Avenue.

The skyscrapers loom distant, yet immense. Double lanes of traffic whiz by on either side as up to 30 Island inhabitants sleep, read, talk and squabble among themselves. Under the shade of two dozen trees, the homeless sleep on donated blankets, using garbage sacks of clothing for pillows. They invite visitors to sit on flattened cardboard boxes.

Craig Martin, 43, is known to Islanders as the "Protector" or the "Big Man." He watches out for folks on the Island and works to keep the place clean.

"Everybody on the Island is like family," he says. "We get along most of the time, and sometimes we get into a little 'thorn.' But we don't do anything to anybody [outside the Island]."

One woman on the Island was stabbed in the neck during a fight with another female on the evening of July 28, according to a crime report. The woman was taken to the Hennepin County Medical Center, her outcome unknown. The incident was more violent than most spats on the Island, but it does call attention to the everyday issues surrounding the homeless who stay there.

Royalston Avenue is an out-of-the-way street in the North Loop neighborhood one block east of the Minneapolis Farmers Market. It can be reached by following 12th Street West from the Downtown core.

Although the Island is not always a place of peace and quiet -- or even fresh air -- it is conveniently located next to several charities that provide food and other services.

The garbage incinerator and city police garage are also nearby. In return for the grass, shade and nearby meals, Islanders have learned to tune out the steady noise around them and put up with the occasional intense stench of garbage, probably wafting from the piles waiting to be burned at the incinerator.

Many homeless people refuse to talk to a reporter, worried that if the Island gets attention, their already shaky existence will get worse. Those who do talk say they choose the Island over shelters for different reasons. Some just stay out too late at night panhandling and miss shelter curfews. Some want the freedom to drink or use drugs. Some cannot stand to sleep among the human smells trapped in a crowded shelter.

"There's not a big enough shelter to hold all the homeless people," says Richard Nunn, 51, who has slept on the Island numerous times. "A country with all this money and resources, and people are sleeping outside? It's like an epidemic -- they're everywhere."

In the morning, there might be 10 homeless people sleeping under the trees. In the afternoon, between 20 and 30 mostly black homeless and their friends or family occupy the Island as a place to relax, take in the view and enjoy the company of those who feel their pain.

The Islanders rely upon support from Sharing and Caring Hands, the charity run by Mary Jo Copeland. The 525 N. 7th St. shelter -- a block east of the Island -- provides, among other services, three meals a day (except Fridays), showers, restrooms, used clothing and other donated supplies such as blankets.

"Everything that you see out here is from Mary Jo," Nunn says.

He was laid off from construction work last year and has not been able to find a job since. He has also been in jail several times, but he refuses to say what for.

Just like the others, he calls Copeland's place "a blessing." Islanders preach her message of hope for a better tomorrow by trusting in God to rescue them from their lives.

Islanders have slipped through the cracks of social programs intended to help those in desperate need but unable -- or, some would say, unwilling -- to help themselves. One homeless man named Robert, 40, openly discussed an addiction to crack he has battled for the past 20 years. He's been through two 28-day treatment centers that just didn't do the trick. He claims he can make up to $200-$300 a night telling people on the street that he needs $4.50 to get his car out of a parking ramp. He says the technique usually works, yielding anywhere from a quarter to $20 from each person who responds.

"I do it until I get tired of smoking crack," he says.

Then he lies down on the Island to take a break.

Robert quoted a 1991 film called "New Jack City," where a man explains why he cannot stop doing crack: "It just be calling me," Robert says after wiping away tears.

Coming off the crack pipe, Robert can get suicidal. For his manic depression, he takes medication provided by Hennepin County and hopes God would some day cure him of his addiction.

Other Islanders claim they don't use drugs, yet their bloodshot eyes -- and the smells -- suggest a different story.

"You might smell it, but you won't see it," Craig "Protector" Martin says. "When the wind travels in any direction, there's no telling which way it came from."

Martin also claims that most on the Island do not do drugs.

Although police officers pay regular visits to the Island, they cannot legally arrest anyone for simply being on what is considered public property. According to police, the only way Islanders can be arrested or forced to leave is by committing some form of illegal activity, which is often hard to catch when officers do not supervise the area 24/7.

A city ordinance forbids camping, but Downtown police Community Crime Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger says it's difficult to call someone sleeping under a tree camping.

"Officers don't want to shag a guy off Royalston if he's just sleeping," Krueger says.

Islanders are full of stories about what they see as police harassment when they're just minding their own business.

"We're just there being calm, playing dominoes or sleeping, and the police come and tell us to move our stuff," says Corine Walters, 37, one of a minority of homeless women on the Island.

First Precinct SAFE Unit Officer Craig Williams says there is no policy whereby police kick people off of Royalston for simply being there.

"But often times they aren't just sitting under the trees," Williams says. "There's often times a reason [for police to visit the Island]."

Businesses will call 911 to complain about Islanders drinking, causing a disturbance, trespassing on business property or acting suspiciously. Police also make directed patrol visits to the area, without receiving a complaint, to catch any illegal or potentially disruptive behavior. Williams says that although police have no real authority to demand people get off the Island unless they are doing something wrong, police can ask them to leave if they are somehow disturbing their neighbors. Islanders claim police don't often ask nicely; "they cuss us out, call us everything except a Child of God," Martin says.

Once the police leave, the Islanders just move right back onto the median. They have learned to keep an eye out for officers and move quickly when one comes.

"We know the cops are nearby. We know not to cause any chaos and to have respect," says Walters, who later takes her Malt liquor off the Island to drink it "discreetly." (Like the few Island women, she talks tough and knows how to defend herself.) High-priced cars blaring R&B music stop along the Island's edge to have a little one-on-one time with interested inhabitants.

The Protector stays behind to share his story. Martin prides himself on having a kind heart, a willingness to give away whatever food or supplies he has to anyone who asks. He has made attempts recently to clean up the Island that even a nearby business owner and the police have recognized.

"Once I started cleaning up, the police mess with us less," Martin says.

Martin has epilepsy, bronchitis and a damaged heart that prevents him from doing much physical work, he says. He is waiting to see if he can get Social Security benefits in Minnesota after recently moving from Chicago, where he refuses to return for fear of being killed.

Martin has been on the Island all summer and has survived three or four fights, which the 6\'5\" boxer skilled in martial arts always wins, he says. Island spats often occur between one person wanting something another person refuses to give.

"I break up a fight or try my best to stop it because it's not worth anything," says Martin, who has a scar on one arm from being hit with a piece of cast aluminum.

"Some people come down here and they want to cause trouble. And I say, 'Not while I'm around you ain't.' And they ask, 'Who the hell are you?' And I say, 'Ever had a bad nightmare? I'll be the worst nightmare you ever had.'"

He growls when he gets mad.

Despite the fights, Martin says that the Island is mostly a safe place to sleep. "Only thing you have to worry about is mosquitoes and the ants," Martin says.

He stays under the blankets to keep the insects away. Others buy cheap bug spray they have to lather on several times a day.

Around his blanket area, Martin has several books about mysterious places and events, including alien encounters. He thinks science fiction can provide an accurate prediction of the future. Right now Martin is writing a story called "The Hasslers and the Harassment." It's about life on the Island. He won't let anyone read it until he's finished telling a story that isn't over yet.

The police receive many calls from nearby business owners complaining about trash, discarded clothing and trespassing on their property, as well as a urine-and-feces stench. Royalston Avenue business owners -- mostly manufacturers -- are tired of overhearing fights outside their windows, tired of dealing with mouthy Islanders who occasionally block the road as the businesspeople drive in to work and tired of feeling embarrassed to bring clients on-site.

"It's terrible to be in business in this part of town," says Stark Electronics, Inc. President and General Manager Duane Petersen.

Stark Electronics, located at 401 Royalston and directly across from the Island, has organized a Thursday, Aug. 14 meeting between businesses and Ward 5 City Councilmember Natalie Johnson Lee, with invitations sent to three nearby charities and the police, to brainstorm ways to deal with Islanders who refuse to leave.

"The businesses will be able to express their concerns and what they think the city's responsibility is," Johnson Lee says. "It's been a long-term issue, and it's at a point now where the Stark Electronics, Inc. owner is frustrated, so we're dealing with it again."

Sharing and Caring Hands moved a block away in 1987 and now serves 20,000 people monthly. Stark's owners says the homeless have been a problem ever since.

CCP/SAFE unit crime prevention officers have met with the businesses on at least three occasions since 1996, encouraging owners to make 911 calls for illegal conduct. Although calls to police have been sporadic in the past, Officer Williams says he has seen a rising number of calls from businesses, complaining about their Island neighbors. This year, as of July 28, there were 63 police calls made from Royalston Avenue.

According to Krueger, SAFE explored the option of an automatic sprinkler system on the property, but that did not work for technical reasons. No Trespassing signs have been put up.

The 1st Precinct also suggested businesses erect fences around their property to discourage trespassing, but business owners cite cost as a barrier. What Stark's owner really wants is for the homeless to get off the Island all together.

"The problem in this community is that the city has elected to put all these charity organizations into this corner of the city," Petersen says. "Because we have the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Mary's Place, they can get help and camp out on the avenue without having to work. It's the people living off the system that we're having a problem with."

Benada Windows General Manager John Walseth has had to kick Islanders out of his building several times. The 415 Royalston building has an outside overhang that Islanders sometimes stand under to escape the rain. The side of the building has scorch marks caused by the homeless burning clothes to keep warm, Walseth says. The clothes that have often ended up scattered on his property have come from Sharing and Caring Hands, as does much of the other trash Benada has had to clean up in the past.

"I know Mary Jo's heart is in the right place, but she seems to be the ultimate enabler," Walseth says.

He says in the three years he's worked at Benada, he has seen a lot of the same faces on the Island every spring, summer and fall (the Island is empty come winter). "It's the same people day after day after day," he says.

Sharing and Caring Hands Director Mary Jo Copeland says she "just can't take responsibility for everybody that's living on an island that belongs to the city. These people choose to be outside and not because I encourage them."

Copeland says a lot of the Islanders drink or use drugs, and her staff does not allow nonsober people into the building.

"I'm not able to do a lot to help them if they won't help themselves," she says.

Copeland says she has, however, sent crews out to clean up the area. Her husband reportedly told police that he would advise Islanders not to camp out on the Island or throw unwanted clothes and other goods from Sharing and Caring Hands on businesses' property.

Salvation Army Harbor Light at 1010 Currie Ave. and Catholic Charities at 1000 Currie both provide shelter. Captain John Joyner, a core officer for Harbor Light, admitted that sometimes there are not enough beds for everyone. Executive Director Bill Miller says, though, that if the people on the Island wanted a place to stay, there would be room at the shelter in the overflow area. As for the smell, Miller says that some of the people who come in suffer from mental illnesses and do not wish to take showers the shelter cannot force them to take.

Miller thinks the primary reason people choose to stay out on Royalston is because of shelter rules that forbid drug use and also establish a curfew.

"You can't just be coming and going when you want," Miller says.

While the shelter recruits people from Downtown areas, Miller did not say staffers target Royalston Island.

"What we're having on Royalston right now is a lack of ownership," Officer Williams says. "SAFE has to come in because we couldn't find anybody who wanted to own the area. Everybody's pointing to the homelessness, but nobody's saying here's what we can do, this is the step we can take to get rid of the loitering, the trespassing and the urinating on business properties."

He adds, "One of the issues that we're dealing with is where do they go? There's really no centralized place outdoors and near the charities where homeless [people] go and feel comfortable."

What the Islanders predictably want is the right to stay on the Island, free of any unwarranted police visits.

"Ease off us a little bit because we are not doing anything wrong," Martin says. "We are just trying to survive. Give the homeless a break."

One thing is for sure: the homeless have resisted pressure to stay off the Royalston median permanently. With the same kind of stubbornness that has kept many of the homeless alive, they will keep coming back to the Island for its convenient location and relative luxury.

"There isn't anywhere else like this where the homeless can stay," Nunn says. "It's like a community, a family, and the people who stay here won't stop coming back because they're fighters."