When home is where you make it

Koran Addo

Down a steep path parallel to the Mississippi River and under a bridge jutting out of a cliff, Canada Dan often sits at home, smoking cigarettes and reading by flashlight.

Dan said he has been homeless for 14 years; he has lived under Interstate 94 for the last three.

He offers a handshake and a place to sit as he tidies up his home when entertaining visitors.

He said he chooses not to live in a shelter because they are dangerous. Instead, he has built a home in a dirt area the size of a basketball court overlooking the river.

“That’s not my bed,” he said, pointing to an unmade mass of sofa cushions and blankets next to his own.

“That’s embarrassing,” he said. “You caught me off-guard and I didn’t have a chance to clean up a bit.”

Dan is one of many homeless people who frequent the University’s campus for various reasons, but he said he is not the stereotypical homeless person. He speaks coherently, is hospitable and, although unshaven, is clean in appearance.

Dan also works for a living, he said. Most mornings he showers at one of several University locations before heading downtown to a temporary work agency where he is contracted to do janitorial and light industrial work, he said.

He is paid approximately $30 daily, which he uses to buy mostly soup, which he eats cold, and cigarettes, he said.

While Dan said he keeps to himself, some homeless criminals have victimized the University community.

Like night and day, the stories of two people down on their luck diverge from Dan to George Williams.

Williams is an alleged homeless thief who has kept the University Police Department busy since the beginning of the school year, said Ben Schnabel, a University police official. Williams, has stolen people’s belongings in broad daylight, according to crime reports.

Senior Nate Arnold chased Williams from Coffman Union to the Mayo Building on Valentine’s Day after he saw Williams walking away with Arnold’s girlfriend’s bag. Williams ditched the bag before Arnold or the police could catch him so police allowed him to leave the scene.

In another instance, Williams stole University student Monica Kimitch’s bag from a computer lab. After Kimitch and her boyfriend, senior Ryan Lear, discovered it missing, they called the cell phone inside and convinced Williams to meet them at a White Castle restaurant in St. Paul to claim a cash prize. When police caught up with Williams at the White Castle he did not have the bag and could not be arrested.

Experts said cases of the homeless committing crimes are not rare, but not as widespread as people might think.

Monica Nilsson, shelter director for Simpson Housing Services in Minneapolis, said most homeless people do not commit crimes. Rather, they seek out a community such as the University in which they can be safe and fit in without being hassled, she said.

“People look for community in all sorts of places,” she said. “When you are living in public it is difficult to find a welcoming place to belong, like the University.”

Dan said he resents homeless people like Williams, who give them a bad name.

“The last thing we want to do is cause a problem for people,” he said. “(Police) get pissed at us, but (my friends and I) are not the ones doing the crimes.”

Katie Anderson, a senior at Hamline University, works with homeless advocacy groups and said it is important for people to learn about the homeless before judging them.

“A lot of them have mental illnesses and are victims of abuse. We have to try and understand them so we can see them as people and not as homeless people,” she said.

Anderson also said a homeless person who commits crimes, while not innocent, often feels there are no alternatives.

“(Being homeless) takes a toll; it’s hard to get a job when you can’t clean yourself up and have no dignity or self-respect,” she said.

Dan said he wants to make sure people don’t get the wrong perception of the homeless.

“We’re not all angry and disenfranchised,” he said. “That’s not the way it is.”

He said he is content with his current living situation and compared it to someone who lives in a modest house.

“When you get a nice spot, you’re pretty lucky to have it,” he said. “Right now I choose to be homeless; everything’s relative.

“I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me; I’m not blaming anyone else. I made my own choices.”

– Jake Weyer contributed to this report