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Local man steps out of the woods, ending 20 years of homelessness

It was January when a Carver County maintenance worker noticed a disheveled, weathered-looking older man standing outside the Government Center in Chaska. There had been a bitter cold snap, and the man looked frozen and distressed. The employee asked if he could help.

“I’m tired,” the man said. “I’m hungry. I burned myself on my campfire. I’m so cold. I just can’t do it anymore.”

The man was Paul Lipinski, 60, a Chaska native who grew up on Walnut Street, attended Chaska schools, and as a young adult lived and worked in the area.

About 20 years ago, Lipinski started living outdoors. He’s lived in a variety of locations over the years, primarily along the Minnesota River.

He lived in his most recent outdoor encampment for nearly 10 years. But age and January’s bitter cold made him realize he couldn’t continue living like this — homeless.

The employee took the man into the Government Center, then contacted Jen Romero. Romero is the housing unit supervisor from Carver County Health & Human Services. She and her staff help find safe and secure housing for the area’s homeless population.

Seeing the man’s condition, “the whole department wrapped their arms around him,” Romero recalled. “He was exactly the type of person our program is meant to serve. He’s from the community, he has no home, no support system.”

The first thing Romero did was take him to a nearby fast food restaurant for a meal. Then she brought him back to the Government Center to begin working on his case. He needed a place to stay and fortunately there was an opening in one of the local hotels the county works with that provide temporary housing for the homeless.

Then, Beth Perry-Dahl, the county’s homeless outreach specialist took his case. She learned that he met the criteria for housing. She helped him navigate the paperwork and even helped him apply for a Minnesota ID. Lipinski met all the criteria set by Health & Human Services, the Carver County Community Development Agency, the Scott Carver Dakota CAP Agency and the Hennepin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

“We work closely with CDA,” Perry-Dahl said, “and knew they had a studio (apartment) opening. We filled out his application with the CDA and he was accepted and approved the following week.”

In early March, Lipinski moved out of his hotel room into a studio apartment in Brickstone Estates apartments on Walnut Street in downtown Chaska. Asked how he likes the apartment compared to his tent in the woods, Lipinski smiled. “I love it. I have everything I need now.”

ONE OF 10

Lipinski jokes that he was nearly born in a ditch. It was August 1959 and his mother had been milking cows when she went into labor. The milkman drove her to St. Francis Hospital, where Paul was born.

Soon after, the Lipinski family sold the farm and moved into Chaska. The family was large with 10 children and Paul was the second youngest. His parents eventually divorced.

While Lipinski doesn’t elaborate much, his parents’ divorce was hard on him. Lipinski attended Chaska public school where he was an OK student. In high school, he and his friends rode the bus to school, but took off once there.

At age 15, he and two of his buddies hitchhiked to Colorado. They were gone for two weeks. Unaware that their parents had reported them missing, they got nabbed when they tried applying for jobs.

Authorities sent them back to Chaska, where Paul spent a half a year or so in a group home that Gary and Sandy Cooper managed. Gary Cooper remembers that “Paul was a good kid. He made good grades, he followed the rules. And I remember his mother was kind.”

Lipinski dropped out senior year, and began working. He had a job, an apartment, a car, a girlfriend and friends.

But when he was nearly 40 years old, something happened. He didn’t elaborate, but did say he wasn’t working at the time and didn’t have a place to live. So he started living outdoors.

OUTDOOR LIFE

Having grown up in Chaska, he was familiar with the wild areas and woods by the Minnesota River between Chaska and Carver, and places he could camp and not be seen.

Then winter came. Still with no place to live, he chose to winter outside. And continued to do so as the seasons and the years passed. He made shelters from cardboard boxes covered with discarded or abandoned tarps. In the early years, he moved from one location to another. For the past 10 years, he created a compound in an area between County Road 40 and the trail between Chaska and Carver.

Recently, Lipinski took a reporter to his former campsite. It can’t be seen from the highway or the trail. But on a quiet spring day, runners, walkers and cyclists can be heard nearby as they use the path; above is the whooshing tires of traffic from the highway.

His former home is up a wooded path. In summer, leafy trees and shrubs provide even better cover for his camp. It’s a series of domed tents and makeshift cardboard shelters that he’s built over the years — some of them protected by tattered tarps and pieces of metal sheeting.

There’s an assortment of bicycle tires and bicycle parts, skeletons of old metal chairs, an old weight bench, ripped up wheelie-suitcases, coffee cans, metal parts from equipment and machines, a plastic molded base of a child’s toy box, a portable vinyl and metal picnic table, even a couple pairs of shoes.

Farther into the compound is a variety of stoves he’s built out of bits and pieces of metal barrels and tins he’s found over the time. There’s a wire basket that he used as a grill for cooking over a fire.

NEW MAN

On that January day, Romero took Lipinski to the Chaska Moravian Church basement and introduced him to Martha Brannon, executive director of His House Foundation, which is located there. The His House Foundation collects clothing, household items, and anything else a homeless family might need to get a new start once they have housing.

“We immediately provided him the bare basics of everything,” Brannon said. “We started with underwear. We threw out what he had ... I don’t remember him having a coat because that was one of things I hunted down for him. I don’t remember that he had any winter gear. And he asked for gloves.”

Lipinski also got a haircut and a shave. His appearance was so different that when Brannon saw him again, she didn’t recognize him. He walked up to her and said, “You met me yesterday!”

“When he qualified for his housing program in early March, we moved him in that day,” Brannon said. His House provided him with a housekeeping starter kit of pots and pans, dishes and housewares, bedding, a mattress and a recliner.

“What’s interesting about Paul is he’s so personable,” Brannon said. “You meet him and you’re impressed at how he was able to live independently in a public place for so long. He found it adventurous and he wasn’t troubled by it until age and the temperature finally got to him. And then he came in.”


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Business
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Golfers grapple with junior amateur cancellation

On par with countless events around the state and world, canceling the 2020 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship didn’t necessarily come as a shock to area golfers.

“We are devastated that it had to be canceled, but I think everybody kind of understood that it was going to be,” said Eric Rule, general manager at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

Regardless, for organizers and players, the announcement was a tough blow.

“I’m bummed because I really wanted to have a chance at playing at my home golf course for this tournament,” said Davis Johnson, 17, a likely qualifier.

Hazeltine was slated to host the July event in conjunction with Chaska Town Course. A series of qualifying tournaments narrows the player pool down to around 250 for the multi-day championships.

Gregory Sanfilippo is the director of U.S. Junior and Senior Amateur Championships with the United States Golf Association. He said the USGA followed local, state and national COVID-19 guidelines in making the decision.

The 73rd annual event would have brought over 1,500 people to Chaska, he said.

“The overall decision and primary focus was just the wellbeing of everybody involved. That extends beyond just the players themselves,” Sanfilippo said.

Rule said he understands the call, especially considering the nature of the sport.

“Certainly it's one of those events where the spectators can get up close and personal with the contestants,” Rule said.

The USGA considered postponing the championships, but Sanfilippo said it wouldn’t make sense. The players are school-aged so a postponal wouldn’t be viable, he said.

“(It would) put players in a spot to question whether to go to school or compete in a golf event,” Sanfilippo said.

Rule, with Hazeltine, agreed, noting the importance of age. Boys and men 18 and under are allowed to compete.

“We would have liked to see it rescheduled, but unfortunately with high school and college-aged kids you really only have a couple month window to be able to reschedule,” he said.

NOT JUST ANY OTHER GAME

Hazeltine and Chaska Town Course started prepping for this championship a couple of years ago.

“The player experience, honestly, for what they were planning could have been just outstanding,” Sanfilippo said.

This year, organizers expanded the course size to add over 100 competitors from last year. It’s a move USGA hoped would “add strength to the field” and let more players qualify in sectionals.

“It could have been an unprecedented story,” Rule said.

Both courses already organized volunteers and emergency plans. Uniforms were ordered. Agendas were in place. Food was arranged.

Already-purchased cereal bars and other items will be donated to Chaska police, fire, and the Two Twelve Medical Center, Rule said.

“We were fully ready to go with the event,” said John Kellin, head golf professional at Chaska Town Course. “It’s really sad. I feel bad for all these kids. There was just a really good, solid plan in place to have a wonderful event.”

‘I’M JUST BUMMED’

Take it from players themselves: no championships means no competition. And at their home course, the news hit even harder for local golfers.

Though too soon to set a player roster, Davis Johnson anticipated qualifying. The Chaska High School junior said by early June, he would have known whether or not the big championship awaited him.

“I’ve been playing forever,” Davis said. “Probably, I mean, I had one of those plastic golf sets ever since I could walk.”

He and his brother, Lincoln, live on Chaska Town Course. It’s the greens they’ve known and loved for years.

Lincoln qualified for the previous two U.S. Junior Amateur Championships, getting medalist honors in 2017. At 20, he doesn’t qualify for the junior amateurs anymore, but feels for younger competitors like his brother who do — rather, did.

“I would be pretty upset just because I’ve grown up playing at the Chaska Town Course and Hazeltine my whole life,” the University of Minnesota sophomore golfer said. “I’d feel like an opportunity would be missed.”

Both Johnson brothers’ school seasons were cut. Both want to eventually go pro. So though the two can still play golf, they’ll miss the competitive nature.

Davis is hoping for another shot next year, but the championships won’t be so close to home.

“I’m just bummed. But at least I have another shot next year, but it won’t be at Hazeltine,” Davis said.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s one of those things that as long as it's happening to everybody, everyone’s got to get through it,” Lincoln said.

Organizers at the two courses and the USGA said most people have been understanding in these unprecedented times.

Next year’s championship is slated for a country club in North Carolina, Sanfilippo said, but wants to see Minnesota back in the game soon.

“Hopefully we do get to bring the Junior Amateur back to Hazeltine and Chaska.”