SOUTH BEND — While Robert Minnes kept warm at one of his favorite hangouts last winter, the South Bend Museum of Art, he took a shoe made of wood that had been in an exhibit and gave it to his sister as a gift.
She’d given him food, coffee, money and rides to where he wanted to go. He never had much to give back. Terri Michalski scrawled “BOB” and the date on the bottom. She always marked the last time she’d seen him.
When she realized it was a museum piece and returned the artsy shoe, titled “Welcome Knives,” California artist Chris Francis felt Minnes had actually deepened its meaning. He insisted the word “BOB” be displayed. The museum obliged. After all, Francis had lived five years on freight trains among the homeless — many of whom would inspire his art and many of whom would die from the harsh lifestyle.
Then on the morning of Christmas Eve, Minnes, the man whom Francis had hoped to meet, laid lifeless under blankets beneath the overhang of a vacant, boarded-up gray store at Portage Avenue and Elwood Street. He died a day shy of his 60th birthday.
By then, Minnes had taken turns staying in shelters, in the much-publicized tent city and in a free motel program. But the shoe story, chronicled in The Tribune last February, hinted at an art-loving side of him that didn’t surprise his daughter.
“He once went around the neighborhood when I was around 10 and gave the neighbors change to buy my drawings,” Kacie Hall, 28, said from her home in Muncie, Ind. “I went door to door ‘selling’ my drawings for a quarter. It gave me confidence in myself. I don’t think many other dads would do that for their kids.”
It was just in 2017 that Minnes dressed in a sharp gray suit and stood in Hall’s wedding ceremony, then danced with her to one of his favorite Tom Jones songs.
“I’m really happy that I got that moment with him,” she said.
To her, he was the divorced dad who took her and her older brother, Anthony, to parks and beaches when he had them on afternoons and weekends, to play basketball, feed ducks, hike, fish or paddle a canoe, leaving her with a hand-crafted walking stick she still has.
“He always wanted to have fun with us,” said Hall, who would graduate from Mishawaka High as a salutatorian.
Later in life, she’d listen to him talk about French philosopher Rene Descartes and the many writing projects he wanted to tackle, with topics such as how to control dreams.
“He loved us, and I wish I could tell him that he was a good dad despite any mistakes we all make in one way or another,” Hall said.
Quiet and generous
Minnes had lived much of his life on the city’s northwest side, close to where the Meijer store on Portage sits today.
He worked as a general handyman, doing anything from plumbing to carpentry, Hall said. That slowed down when his worsening knee issues got him on disability payments a few years ago.
For more than 20 years, he’d lived with his mom, whom his sister, Terri Michalski, said struggled to handle her son’s drinking. Their mom, Susan, died in October 2018. The house was lost in foreclosure by February. And Minnes stayed part of that winter in the Center for the Homeless, Michalski said.
By spring 2019, he started renting a room, then made it through the next winter in various places, including weather amnesty shelters. He found himself in the tent city that caught the public’s attention when it sprang up last spring in a vacant lot south of downtown, then eventually moved to Doulos Chapel.
Lisa Richardson, who goes by Lisa Loww on Facebook, found him sleeping in a doorway, then brought him to the camp, where she volunteered, and got him a tent and a month-long bus pass.
“It really perked him up,” she said.
He shared the story of the stolen shoe and how remorseful he was. As other advocates would find, Minnes was quiet and meek, not wanting to hang out with homeless people, but he could be generous to those around him.
“If he had anything, he’d give it to them,” Richardson said.
Outside of Doulos Chapel, when someone stole the suitcase that carried his belongings, he seemed resigned to it, Richardson said, but she checked around and retrieved it from another person’s tent.
When the Doulos camp broke up in early summer, Michalski lost contact with him and filed a missing person report with police.
Minnes regularly showed up at her house, within view of the LaSalle Branch Library. Rather than knock, he’d typically sit on her front porch, her three dogs would bark, and she’d come to see him.
She’d also check the swing in the morning and before she went to bed. He’d become close to her husband of 25 years, Carl, who’d hire her brother to build a deck long ago, fix plumbing and, more lately, simple jobs such as bush trimming.
The house visits were also a chance for his daughter, Kacie, to stay in touch, though the last she talked with him was in early fall. He’d had a couple of phones, but apparently lost them.
Turns out, Minnes had gravitated last summer to the family’s old stomping grounds near Portage and Elwood, be it the old Martin’s Super Market plaza or the collapsing Drewerys site or the vacant gray store, where other homeless people have — and still — hang out, said Debby Applegate, director of Michiana Five for the Homeless.
One of the charity’s volunteers found Minnes, bringing him food and diabetic snacks since he’d told her and his daughter that he was diabetic (Michalski said she’d never heard he was diabetic). Minnes indulged her in many friendly chats.
“Little things like that meant a lot (to him),” Applegate said. “He would ask her how she was doing.”
Michalski said her family had tried to get him set up with a place to stay, such as a motel, adding, “I was just hoping he could do something on his own.”
“He’d put it off,” she said. “He’d only do what was important on that day, at that moment.”
‘Lose their footing’
In late August, he was in the first group of people who secured a room through Motels4Now, which places the homeless in local motels, program coordinator Sheila McCarthy said.
The program had started in the wake of the tent city, first through the homeless outreach ministry Our Lady of the Road, then backed by two anonymous donors and now financed by the county with about $570,000 of CARES Act money through March as a way to avert COVID-19 risks among the homeless. It has housed a total of about 250 so far, with about 60 rooms that are always full, McCarthy said.
Minnes stayed for 32 days. Even though the program doesn’t restrict how long a person can stay, McCarthy said, he left. Most residents explain why they move on. He was among the minority who don’t. His sister can only guess why. She feels he was comfortable with the Portage/Elwood corner, having told her people had given him money there.
A Motels4Now staffer found him in November and invited him back to a room, but he wasn’t interested. When a staffer again sought him in December, he’d already died. Michalski said he’d developed dementia-like memory issues, and he’d been in and out of the hospital a couple of times last fall for back pain and seizures.
Besides that, she said, his knees and walking had grown worse, adding, “He walked horribly.”
She last saw him after he visited Dec. 14, as she watched him amble to the bus and leave.
On the morning of Dec. 24, one of Minnes’ friends came into the Blarney Stone liquor store, across the corner at Portage and Elwood from where Minnes slept, to say he wasn’t responding, store manager Mike Patel said.
A clerk called 911. Police came. The county coroner’s office reported the suspected cause of death to be hypothermia, though the office has yet to receive a death certificate. Minnes was an occasional customer in the liquor store.
When The Tribune called the artist, Francis, on Wednesday, he was crushed by the news. He knows how easily people “lose their footing.”
He’d set off riding the rails in his 20s as a rebellious “adventure to see the country,” stopping to work, make money and then travel again with an “underground society.” It became a habit that lasted too long, he said, one he had to end after watching so many friends die, particularly in winter cold.
After five years, it was hard to anchor himself, he said over the phone near Hollywood, Calif., where he now lives.
He recalled a homeless dock worker in Baltimore who’d lost his family to a car crash, hit by a drunk driver on a day the man hadn’t joined them for church.
“This guy couldn’t find his way out of a bottle,” he said.
Francis’ exhibit, which ended last spring in the South Bend museum, is now with him in its packing boxes.
“I wish there was a way to let people know that people, down on their luck, they need extra care,” he said, “especially around winter time.”