Homeless in Bemidji

This series of stories from the Bemidji Pioneer are compiled here on the one-year anniversary of their publication.

Justin Glawe
Aug 31, 2014 · 27 min read

A young boy blew bubbles through a wand July 5. His father packed a bag while mom readied the stroller. It was a scene among hundreds on Independence Day weekend.

As the translucent spheres drifted, a far different, dirtier, drunken and more dysfunctional family sat about a football field away from the boy and his bubbles. Two leaned against the cinder block wall of a forgotten building, while two others lay on the ground. One of them — Andy Reed, his face buried in his hands — was half-asleep, moaning either in drunken ecstasy or hungover misery.

“As long as we know he’s breathing we’ll be alright,” said Lawrence Goggleye, one of the men with his back to the wall of the building.

Reed, Goggleye, Shelly Whitefeather and Melvin Kingbird are among what might be more than two dozen homeless men and women in Bemidji, but the actual numbers are difficult to determine.

It’s hard to tell if the foursome’s presence was more obvious or harder to distinguish among crowds that reached into the thousands over the holiday weekend.

Most people travelling to Bemidji for July 4 wouldn’t have trekked to the forgotten building Kingbird and Goggleye leaned against, or walked the path that leads under a wooden bridge over the Mississippi River. There, green spray paint reads “Indian Drunk Spot.” They probably wouldn’t have noticed the boxcar where Goggleye said he and some of his friends sometimes sleep. However, some might have ended up on Nymore Beach, near concrete pylons that used to act as support mechanisms for a long-gone logging facility. Now, they are silent witnesses to many drunken days and nights, and at least one death.

Adelbert James “Butch” Ryan made it to the age of 63 after many years on the streets of Bemidji. On June 21, he made it to Nymore Beach, but no further.

A hand-painted sign for Nymore, a neighborhood on the southern edge of Bemidji. Butch’s body was found by two children riding their bicycles along the shore of Nymore Beach, within a stone’s throw from a brand new hotel being built on Lake Bemidji.

Hiding in Plain sight

The cement blocks where Butch was found are one of the spots. Another is the waterfront gazebo. Then there are the benches, scattered throughout downtown, and the alleys and bike trails under the bridges that span the Mississippi. Some of the spots are hidden; others, in plain sight.

On Aug. 14, as the first chill of autumn wrapped its cold fingers around the shores of Lake Bemidji, a group of homeless representing three generations of Ojibwe people gathered at the waterfront. One of the spots. This one, “out of the way of the cops,” according to Reed.

Andrew Willard Reed, born Jan. 28, 1955, was joined that night by Roger Ricci, 48, and a few others who wished to remain anonymous. Reed was limping, as he had been for a few weeks. He said he’d been jumped; “Vice Lords” were responsible for the beating, which occurred over a six pack of beer, Reed said. The younger ones in the group, the ones who didn’t want to be named, talked about drugs.

“I’m trying to get rid of a Vic 10 so I can get some weed,” one of the men said. He had Vicodin, a prescription painkiller. Some in the group talked about crushing and snorting the pill.

The older ones kill their pain with alcohol.

“It’s 3.2 (percent alcohol) beer,” Reed said. A six pack sat in a plastic bag between his legs. He ate cheese curls bought from a gas station across the street. “But it’s better than nothing.”

Some drink to “forget about life,” according to Ricci. “I didn’t choose to be homeless,” he said. They’re constantly on the move. Spot to spot, night after night, bottle after bottle through the seasons.

“They search us out,” Ricci said of the police. “So we find a different hiding spot. Sleep wherever we sleep. They’ll fine us and ticket us (for alcohol) or just dump it. I tell them ‘why don’t you go around the bars cause there’s caucasians drinking outside the bars.’ Beers, mixes. … Why don’t you go ticket them?’”

The group dispersed. A brother and sister walked north along the lake to find a place to sleep. Reed and Ricci did the same, walking south. The younger ones went to destinations unknown. One of them would be arrested the next night on a warrant for theft of a motor vehicle. He smiled in his mugshot, his black hair pulled into a tight pony tail. Melvin Kingbird’s brother, Conrad, was arrested a few days later. The charge: urinating in public.

‘A grieving process’

Whitefeather and Kingbird are from the Red Lake Indian Reservation; Goggleye and Reed, the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. They talked and passed a bottle of Taaka Vodka back and forth on July 5. They joked that a pile of small, dead fish near them were the remnants of their dinner. But they didn’t talk about the meals they’d taken in that day, if there were any. All they knew was they’d gone through five bottles of vodka. Goggleye pulled an airplane bottle of whiskey from his pocket and downed it.

Reed groaned.

“We got a high tolerance, bro,” Kingbird said.

Before 8 p.m. that night, Reed had already succumbed to the liquor. He was up later in the evening, though, roaming the streets of downtown with friends, occasionally asking for money or a cigarette — just as he was a few days after the death of his friend, Butch.

“I’m going through a grieving process,” he told a bartender at Keg ‘N’ Cork in late June. He dumped a pile of change on the bar, asking for a beer. “A lot of people cared about Butch.”

The spot on Nymore Beach — the one with the concrete pylons — was home to the last few moments and hours of one of an extended homeless family. Butch was well-known among the homeless, and his friends continued to mourn his death on Independence Day weekend.

“I remember his smile,” Whitefeather said.

The night before

Butch was a quiet man, by most accounts. He was also a drunk man. In a police report written about an incident that occurred the night before his body turned up on the beach, an officer with Bemidji Police Department described Butch’s state.

“Ryan appeared to be highly intoxicated as he had a strong odor of alcohol, slurred speech, and red, watery eyes,” the officer wrote. “Ryan admitted to being ‘really drunk.’ Ryan had an overall disheveled appearance. His coat was only on one arm, and the rest of his clothes were very dirty and soaking wet due to the weather conditions. Ryan is a known homeless male from multiple previous contacts.”

What wasn’t in that report was an incident that a Bemidji man said occurred not long before police arrived. The weekend after Butch died was an eventful one for the town. Hundreds of firefighters from across the state poured into Bemidji for the Minnesota State Fire Department Association’s annual conference.

As Butch lay drunk on the sidewalk that night, a man, who wished to remain anonymous, saw a group of firefighters harassing Butch. When police arrived, the man informed the officer of what he saw, pointing out a group of firefighters to the policeman who would later take Butch to the Law Enforcement Center.

In a letter addressed to the Pioneer and Det. Sgt. Mike Haines, the man who said he saw the firefighters surrounding Butch, wrote: “I witnessed (the firefighters) pick (Butch) up and try to make him walk. He was too intoxicated to stand. When the fireman let go of (Butch) he fell to the ground and that’s when he received the cut on the forehead. They did this at least two, maybe three times.”

Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said his department has looked into the incident, but none of the men who allegedly accosted Butch that night have been located. No signs of trauma were found in an autopsy performed by Beltrami County Coroner Mark Robia, and Mastin said foul play is not suspected in Butch’s death.

“It sounds mean, but in this case, we no longer have a victim who could testify as a witness,” Mastin said of the alleged assault the night before Butch’s death.

Just before taking him away, the officer asked Butch: “Is there anywhere I can take you? Any friends or family you can stay with?”

Butch didn’t answer. He simply looked up at the officer with glassy eyes, a thumb-size drop of blood on his forehead. About 13 hours later, another officer would report to his superiors the body found at Nymore Beach — Butch’s body.

Trailers of traveling carnival workers, taken during a busy Fourth of July weekend in Bemidji last year.

Goodbye, Butch

Butch isn’t the only one who died outside, where some, by choice or fate, live their lives. In March 2010, 40-year-old Michael Jourdain died near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Sarah Einerson, who works with Churches United to provide shelter at various houses of worship come wintertime, said Jourdain’s death “tugged at her heart.”

When Einerson spoke at a City Council meeting about Jourdain, Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, was in attendance.

“He was stunned to hear we had a homeless person die on the streets.”

There are more.

Four years earlier, in June, 2006, a man and a woman were run over by a train as they sat on tracks not far from where Reed, Goggleye, Whitefeather and Kingbird drank on July 5. Vanessa Rose Stillday, 25, and Herman Joseph Strong Jr., 35, were with Ronald Gary Brunette, sitting on the tracks when the train struck the trio. Brunette, 35, lived. Strong and Stillday did not.

The conductor was rolling along at about 30 mph, according to media reports. He blew the horn. He slammed on the brakes. Stillday, Strong and Brunette didn’t move.

They waved.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years,” Goggleye said, remembering Stillday and Strong.

Reed continued mumbling restlessly on the ground.

On the night of the coins at the bar, when Reed used the change to pay for a beer, he grieved instead of groaned. He seemed lucid, perhaps having recently awoke from round one.

Butch’s body had been identified a few days earlier. But until autopsy results came in, released in a one-sentence report from Haines on Aug. 14 at the request of the Pioneer, that’s all anyone knew.

The cause of death: drowning.

Much of Butch’s last hours are known. Police picked him up near Keg ‘N Cork the night before, wet from the cold rain that soaked the streets just before midnight. Butch said he wanted to go to detox, a facility near Nevis called Pine Manor, but there was no room there, according to a police report. He then said he wanted to go to the waterfront, but changed his mind. So, he was taken to the hospital, but he “refused to be treated” there and was again picked up by police. The next stop was the Law Enforcement Center where Butch slept on the floor, the report stated. Where he went after that, how he ended up on Nymore Beach and who he might have been with, however, remain unclear.

Butch was found with the top portion of his body submerged in Lake Bemidji. His feet remained on shore. Two children riding their bicycles made the discovery.

“I don’t know how he became dead, but he’s dead,” Reed said. “That’s all I know.”

Reed was down and out on July 5, moaning, rolling on the ground. A few weeks later Goggleye would be side-by-side with two Bemidji police officers, cooking hotdogs and burgers at the ACLU’s Community Connections Picnic. Melvin Kingbird would be in jail.

But Reed’s family is large. Without Melvin, Goggleye or Whitefeather, the 58-year-old is just fine. On the night at the waterfront, with the mercury falling and a six-pack of 3.2 percent alcohol Bud Light dwindling due to his generosity, Reed called the men there his brothers.

The only bubbles were in the beer.

A couple sits along Paul Bunyan Drive, the main drag through Bemidji, on Fourth of July weekend last year. In part two of Homeless in Bemidji, readers were introduced to some of the costs associated with dealing with the small town’s homeless population.

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.

From left, Lawrence Gogglye, Melvin Kingbird and Shelly Whitefeather.

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.”

A statue outside the Law Enforcement Center, the operational hub of the Bemidji Police Department and the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office.

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.

In this photo, Andy Reed slumbers on July 5, 2013. Reed was stuck by a car and killed the day the the final story in the Homeless in Bemidji series ran, which you can read below. Throughout our time together Reed and I became close. It was a shock to everyone involved with these stories when he unexpectedly passed. I think about him, Bemidji, and the many compassionate and special people I met there, every day. In the final story in the series, solutions to the problem were addressed, and a local pastor admitted there may be no easy answer.


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.”

Sherry Iceman.

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.”

The elder

Andy Reed

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 Rev. Bob Kelly and Sherry Iceman. Photo by Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

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.

The author with Sherry Iceman and the Rev. Bob Kelly.

“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

    Written by

    Independent journalist. My newsletter, Where Do We Go From Here, covers American life, death and corruption. Sign up here: https://justinglawe.substack.com/

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade