Meet the beggars

A conversation with those who silently seek handouts at Southwest's highway ramps

Terry J. Cooper works the corner of Lake Street and I-35W, panhandling motorists stopped at the red light. Standing quietly behind his cardboard sign that says "Homeless, Please Help," he accepts dollar bills and spare change handed through open car windows. The Lake Street location is one of several favorite corners.

For Southwest drivers, beggars such as Cooper have been a persistent sight this summer. For many drivers, Cooper, a middle-aged black man, causes discomfort. They avoid eye contact by fiddling with their radio, checking their hair in the rearview mirror or staring straight ahead. Some lock their doors.

However, Cooper plays the percentages and waits patiently for those strangers willing to give him money. The Washington, D.C. native wears army fatigues, boots and an army cap that hides his dreadlocks. On some days, he said, he can make as much as $80. He lives hand to mouth, doesn't pay taxes and doesn't punch a time clock. But he considers standing at the roadside with his sign a job.

A willing storyteller, he plies you with tales of dubious nature. He said he became homeless when his aunt died 15 years ago, claims to be Martin Luther King, Jr.'s oldest cousin and a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association who lost his job when hijacked jets brought down the World Trade Center towers. Harsh Minneapolis winters do not intimidate him. "I know how to stay warm in the winter; I got boots," he said pointing to his government-issue black high-tops.

Many of his friends earn a living just the way that he does. They take turns working busy corners making sure each gets what they need for the day.

Another thing they have in common: they know the law.

When Hennepin County District Judge Beryl Nord ruled March 30 that the city's antibegging ordinance violated First Amendment rights, Cooper knew about it. The Minneapolis City Council later approved a new antibegging ordinance that outlawed "aggressive solicitation" in public places, defined as a plea for money that is "disturbing and disruptive" and may include "approaching or following" pedestrians. It specifically bars panhandlers from soliciting in restrooms, bus or light-rail transit shelters, crosswalks, public transportation vehicles, sidewalk cafes, parked cars, at queues or near ATM machines.

However, the ordinance does not apply to people who stoically stand at roadsides, sign in hand. Thus, Cooper and others like him are within the law and within their rights beside busy streets.

Allysen Hoberg, a Fulton resident who is the director of the St. Stephens Shelter at 2211 Clinton Ave. S., said roadside solicitation is definitely up, in part because it is now legal.

"Some people get very upset to see people panhandling because they are moving from downtown to Southwest neighborhoods. They say it's a big scam and they are making tons of money. But most of the people I see panhandling outside also sleep outside, especially by the freeways. So I don't think it is this big racket that some people like to portray it as on talk radio," she said.

Hoberg adds that many with signs are middle-aged and can no longer do manual labor the way they used to. Many are veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and mental-health and chemical-dependency issues are common. Hoberg said more women are panhandling, too, in part because if they have boyfriends who are also homeless, no shelters will take them both, so they sleep outside together.

She said that there are fewer homeless people in Minneapolis than in other cities, mostly because sleeping outside here is illegal. Gauging their exact number is difficult because the law compels the homeless to hide, but Hoberg says it is about 500 to 700 people each night, regardless of the season.

In the no man's land between the corners of Lyndale and Franklin and Loring Park a 49-year-old Ojibwe man who would only give his name in his native tongue sat on a metal guardrail beside the road. He was a thin man who wore a red bandana over his long black hair. When asked to talk, he had trouble standing because, he said, he had been drinking and using crack. Occasionally, he added, he uses heroin.

The man said he lives in a grassy area where Lyndale and Hennepin avenues converge at the tip of the Wedge, and he sleeps underneath the I-94 overpass.

Sometimes incoherent, at other times he spoke quietly about his situation. He said his was a hard way to make a living. Yet, at his corner, he said, he can often make as much as $15 to $20 in two hours.

"There are a lot of people who are homeless out here and there are a lot of people who have had their lives threatened because they're homeless," he said. "We are asking for pennies and cents and they want to do some physical stuff on us. But hey, this land was created for the American Indians and we are sleeping under the bridge.

"The police know who we are by name and because we don't do nothing wrong so they say, 'You're OK, cover up and go back to sleep,'" he said.

During his conversation with a reporter, a young man rides up on a bicycle. His shirt is off, showing off his tattoos, and he demands to know what is going on. It is the man's "cousin" and he is there to make sure the older man comes to no harm. Assured that it is only conversation, the younger rides off.

Five minutes later, another "cousin" arrives. "Is everything all right?" she says.

Her name is Pam. She said she has epilepsy and is also homeless. She joins the conversation. Asked what the man's name is, Pam said, "Call him old Crusty Butt."

They camp and drink in the area, but when winter comes, they return to their reservation. They share their money, she said. Since they cannot use a bank, they hide their surplus elsewhere. Pam told the story of going to get some cash on a windy day and having it all blow away.

Five minutes later, Larry, another "cousin," arrived to see what was going on. He had a cell phone in his hand. If anyone was in danger, he was ready to call the police.

Tom F. is a 45-year-old, thin, white Chicago native who broke his hip in a motorcycle accident. Following his operation he was told that he was now healthy enough to work. He is an electrician by trade but after two hours on his feet, he says, his pain is unbearable, and so he, too, stands by the roadside with a cardboard sign. Still, he manages to stand for cars stopped at the red slight.

He wears socially agreeable talismans. A wooden cross hangs from his neck on a leather cord, his black tee shirt reads "D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs" and a Minnesota Twins cap shields his eyes from the afternoon sun.

He says his actions are legal, but police sometimes harass him because they say at his spot at the 46th Street I-35W ramp is state property and that he is interrupting traffic

"A lot of the people on corners are drunk, and the police hassle them because they give people a hard time -- but [the inebriated] give the rest of us a bad name," Tom said. "Some of the officers know I have kids and I am not drinking, huffing paint or doing drugs. But there is no affordable housing in Minneapolis, and there is no room at the shelters. It's bad news."

He camps out in a tent in the thick bushes up against the highway side of I-35W's tall wooden noise barriers. The roar of speeding cars is loud, but the walls offers privacy and some protection against the wind and the rain.

Tom said he has four sons. He pays $60 a night for two of his sons to live at a Lyndale Avenue motel in Southwest. He said Sharing and Caring Hands takes care of his other two sons. He solicits money until he meets his daily responsibility for the motel and food.

Why does he camp out instead of live with a set of sons? Tom said that no more than two people are allowed to live in the motel room.

"Sometimes you can sit there for two hours and get a dollar, and other times you get $40 in two hours," he said. "I get what I need, and then I am gone. I don't stay out past that; I don't like doing this. It is degrading, but it is better than to be stealing, robbing or hurting people. It's better than that. I wage peace and am with the big guy in the sky who gets me through everything."