When the pandemic struck Minnesota, Matt Kenevan all but lost three beer and media-related businesses, became a well-known firewood supplier to the homeless and irked at least a few key figures at St. Paul City Hall through his connections to “Propane Steve.”
Kenevan, publisher of St. Paul-based Growler Magazine, hasn’t sold enough advertising to justify rolling the presses since August. His popular Winter Beer Dabbler festival — of which the Pioneer Press is a sponsor — was canceled last month, as was his annual Pride Dabbler before that.
And given the slowdown in special events due to the pandemic, things also are slow for Metro Cold-Stor, his refrigerated beer trailer rental company.
But Kenevan isn’t crying into his beer. Instead, with an eye toward keeping the homeless warm through winter, and to mixed reaction from St. Paul City Hall, he’s been cutting cords of firewood — stacks as high as 80 feet tall and 8 feet long — with gusto, and inviting fellow media and public relations professionals, celebrity athletes and the general public to come help him, which they have.
What remains of his small magazine and special events staff sometimes joins him at his Mendota Heights base of operations to operate his skid-steer loader and automated log cutter. At homeless camps across St. Paul, Kenevan is now known as the firewood guy.
The idea got started when Kenevan — who heats his own home with firewood — delivered wood last year to Brian Ingram, proprietor of the Hope Breakfast Bar and Gnome Craft Pub in St. Paul — for an outdoor fundraiser for laid-off workers in the service industry. Kenevan still delivers to bars and restaurants looking to heat their outdoor patios, but his clientele list has expanded in ways he would never have foreseen a year ago.
Distribution is simple: Kenevan shows up wherever in St. Paul the homeless are camping out, and he and his 9-year-old son Clay hand over logs of firewood for their fire pits and burn barrels. A certain “Josh,” a middle-aged man at a now-defunct campground on Snelling Avenue, once surprised him from behind with a bear hug and a face full of tears.
“‘You’re saving my life,’” Kenevan recalled Josh telling him. “When someone says ‘you’re saving my life’ and sincerely means that, there’s no feeling to replace that.”
Not every interaction is as heartwarming.
Elsewhere, campers along Shepard Road have sometimes raised his ire by hitting him up for money even as he’s trying to keep them warm through an increasingly brutal winter.
“They’d say, can I have $5?” Kenevan said. “I’m human. I’m partial to helping people who are off-the-grid campers.”
ENLISTING HELP CHOPPING WOOD
For woodcutting muscle, Kenevan has leveraged his Facebook following and professional connections.
Stephanie March, a food critic with Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, celebrated her 50th birthday by cutting firewood alongside Kenevan in the woods, accompanied by Twin Cities Business Magazine editor Allison Kaplan and Alexis Walsko from the Minneapolis-based public relations company Lola Red.
In a few days, former Minnesota Twins standout Joe Mauer is scheduled to cut a few cords alongside him, as is former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brooks Bollinger.
“Matt is a creative who looks for solutions to the problems he sees, but what sets him apart is that he takes immediate action,” said March, in an email. “I love to support that, because the need is now and often it can’t wait for people to set up committees and have meetings. He sees a guy without gloves, and he gives them his. We need people to write checks, but we also need people to be the boots on the ground to help people.”
Kenevan cuts twice a week, delivers twice a week and preps his site for the next cut twice a week, making his firewood operation almost a daily undertaking.
UP TO 20 CORDS A WEEK
A recent week racked up $2,300 in expenses backed by charitable donations collected online through Venmo and GoFundMe. In a single week, he may cut 20 cords of wood — one cord is about four feet tall, four feet wide and eight feet long — and distribute to 40 campsites, including campgrounds as small as a single tent.
What skeptics might dismiss as passing charity or a feel-good effort has grown increasingly elaborate, visible and controversial. And, by Kenevan’s own admission, sometimes irrelevant.
As temperatures have dropped below zero, demand for firewood has actually decreased. Firewood fuels fire pits and burn barrels, which allow for outdoor camaraderie. Even those homeless resistant to housing want to hang out outdoors in dangerously cold temperatures.
Keeping tents warm through the night is likely to involve propane, which St. Paul officials have blamed for a series of explosions and dangerous fires at camps across the city.
On Jan. 20, Janiece S. Williams, 32, was found dead at the downtown encampment on the north side of Shepard Road between Jackson and Sibley streets. A fire had damaged three tents and sent a second woman to the hospital with burns. In December, another fire downtown spread to seven tents.
“Sometimes you go, and camps are burned down,” Kenevan acknowledged. “It’s not the firewood, to be clear. It’s propane. I don’t distribute propane. I offer burn barrels if anyone needs a burn barrel. But it’s too cold right now.”
CITY OFFICIALS ALARMED BY CALLS FOR PROPANE
Kenevan may not distribute propane, but he knows who does, at least by first name. For three years, “Propane Steve” has been handing out as many as 12 propane tanks a day to tent dwellers, crisscrossing St. Paul on what he sees as a mission of mercy. Steve, who does not live in the city, isn’t about to sit down with a reporter and give an interview, or reveal his identity on social media, Kenevan said.
So on Feb. 8, Kenevan put out a call for propane tanks on Steve’s behalf. The posting on his personal Facebook page and other social media channels reads: “Friends I need help Please!!!!. I’m looking for 20# Propane tanks ASAP. Ideally I want to get 50+ tanks full or empty for my pal propane Steve. … This guy is putting in serious work! … This is life and death for these campers. … Let’s make a difference.”
Officials at St. Paul City Hall were alarmed by the call for propane.
“It’s bad,” said St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen on Wednesday. “Just watch any of the photos or videos of these exploding in the tents. Terrifying, and very dangerous.”
Mayor Melvin Carter, in a wide-ranging campaign interview on Saturday, said the city has taken pains to work with Ramsey County and make sure there are shelter beds available.
“We’ve lost three people this season to just cold exposure,” Carter said. “Anyone we ask to move out of a tent, we’re not just saying go sleep on a bus bench. We’ve got a safe, clean, indoor option tonight for anyone who is outdoors.”
Suzanne Donovan, a spokeswoman for the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections, confirmed there is no specific rule or regulation that prohibits collecting and distributing propane tanks at encampment sites. Still, as a result of repeat fires and some explosions, “the city has consistently worked to educate individuals experiencing homelessness and the general public about the dangers not only in camping outdoors in extreme weather conditions, but also the risks and life-safety concerns posed by using propane and open fires at encampment sites.”
On Tuesday, St. Paul Deputy Fire Chief Steve Sampson sat down with Kenevan to share concerns about the danger of open flame near tent material and combustibles, and map out the efforts of the city’s unsheltered homeless work group. The group has chosen to dismantle at least the largest eight of the city’s 81 encampments and move residents to new shelter spaces opened by Ramsey County.
‘IS HE GOING TO STOP? NO.’
A few months ago, the number of unsheltered homeless in St. Paul peaked at 400 individuals, about 10 times the count conducted a year prior. The number has since fallen to 53, said Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso.
“It is a difficult time. It’s frigid conditions,” Mokosso said. “The best thing we can do at this time is connect people with shelters and get them out of the cold. Getting that information out is critical.”
Despite a lengthy heart-to-heart with Kenevan, Mokosso said, “it doesn’t seem like any of the social media posts I’ve been brought up to speed on now indicate any change in plan.”
Kenevan said Sampson was “very professional, very humane” and “the city is not the bad guy in this equation,” but he hasn’t given up his sense of mission, and neither has Propane Steve.
“Is he going to stop? No,” Kenevan said. “There’s no law that says you can’t do this. He bought 80 buddy heaters. If they get knocked over, they’re not going to catch fire. I can’t say they’re 100 percent not dangerous. … (But) I just can’t turn a blind eye if somebody is freezing. There’s people who don’t have gloves, who don’t have tents and they’re outside. That’s inhumane.”
To help connect someone in need to shelter, contact St. Paul Police non-emergency at 651-291-1111 or Ramsey County at 651-266-7818. Referrals can be made by emailing AdultShelterReferrals@co.ramsey.mn.us
In addition, members of the public can contact the city’s information line if they see concerning conditions that threaten the health or safety of individuals experiencing homelessness, or that of nearby residents.
Call 651-266-8989 Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
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