MINNEAPOLIS — For a man who claims to be terrible with names, Bryan Ring seemed to have no trouble last week at the homeless encampment near Sheridan Memorial Park in Minneapolis.
“Hey, Robert,” he said to a man headed to the camp’s portable toilet while wearing just one boot. “How are you doing? Get that boot on!”
He teased Angel Prince about spraining her thumb. “Whatcha been doin’, Angel? Beating up one of the guys in camp again?”
Ring, of Stillwater, had driven over for the day with a pickup truck full of supplies. It was 10 degrees and he was prepared. His Ford F-350 pickup truck was packed with sleeping bags, food, hand warmers, propane tanks and winter clothes, neatly labeled in bins. One huge black garbage bag was filled with men’s winter coats; another had sweatshirts.
“Hey, do you need anything?” Ring called out as people began gathering near the back of the truck. “Coat? Hat? Gloves? Mittens? Sweatshirt? Anybody need gloves? Anybody need a laundry bag? I’ve got one left.”
Al Rozier, dressed in shorts and sandals without socks, asked about a “big man’s coat” and thermal long johns. Ring supplied him with both.
“He’s a godsend,” said Rozier. “He does what he can for everyone.”
‘The struggle is real’
Ring, who owns Ring Lawn Care in Stillwater, is one of the camp’s favorite aid workers, said Prince, who’s been living in homeless camps for the past six months.
“He knows what it’s like because he lived like this, too,” Prince said. “The struggle is real. It’s especially hard in winter. And Bryan’s a really great help. He volunteers all over the place. He’s good people.”
Ring, 50, started collecting donations from residents of Stillwater last summer after a visit to Powderhorn Park on his way back from dropping off tires at a tire shop in North Minneapolis. Ring grew up a block from the park, which became a haven for people displaced in the aftermath of the George Floyd riots.
“It was already bad around the time COVID entered the picture, but then George Floyd was killed, and it got worse,” he said. “Powderhorn was my park. This was, like, my ‘hood. Everything about Minneapolis made me who I am today, and I just knew I needed to do something.”
He came back from that June 24 visit and “ransacked, literally, my whole entire closet,” he said.
He also posted messages on his Facebook page and on Nextdoor, a neighborhood-based social-media app, pleading for donations. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m willing to be the transport if you want to donate. These people need help,’ ” he said.
Residents stepped up, shopping at Target, Cub Foods and dollar stores. “Someone made a Target purchase that we picked up,” he wrote on Facebook. “Another person actually shopped with us at the dollar store for much-needed supplies. We stopped at two more people’s homes on our way out for more food, clothes & a couple kid bikes. … Man, this experience of giving back is incredible. This community has blown my mind with support!”
‘I cried the whole way home’
Ring began making weekly trips to the homeless camp.
“Tarps, tents, blankets, sleeping bags, shoes, socks & underwear are other top priorities,” he wrote in a Facebook post on July 26. “Doing this work is work. But, the gratitude I have for my life will never come close to the gratitude I see in these displaced people’s eyes when they see us show up.”
Ring said he has been moved to tears by the people he has met in the camps, especially a 3-year-old boy named Ian and a woman in her 70s. “I’m tearing up just now thinking about her,” he said of the woman. “When I left her at camp, I honestly felt like I Ieft my mother there. I cried the whole way home.”
Former state Sen. Jane Haugen Krentz is one of Ring’s biggest fans and has donated winter jackets, hats, mittens and blankets to the cause.
“I am amazed by Bryan’s compassion and dedication,” Krentz said. “Many people donate items or money or volunteer for a one-off opportunity, all of which are important, but Bryan gives his heart and soul to those in need. He builds relationships with people. He genuinely cares about them and is there for them week after week, month after month.”
‘Look at my picture’
Ring, who has five children and seven grandchildren, says he can easily connect with the people in the camps because of his own life experiences.
“I’m just a different kind of guy,” he said. “I’m a recovering drug and alcohol addict. I’ve been where these people have been — just not at this level. I’ve slept on the streets, spent time in jail and been on welfare.”
Ring’s drug of choice was marijuana. “I say that to people, and they laugh at me,” he said. “But I have this picture right beside me, I can look at it every day, and I look like a crackhead: I’m skinny, and my clothes are falling off of me. I smoked to live, I lived to smoke, and I never ate. I maybe ate once a day. When people say, ‘Marijuana isn’t a drug,’ I go, ‘Look at my picture.’ ”
He stopped drinking when he was 24 and stopped smoking when he was 27. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Minneapolis for “14 straight years,” he said. “They basically taught me how to live life.”
In 2002, after working for a lawn-care company for five years, Ring decided to start his own. “I started with a minivan and a boat trailer,” he said. “I put a piece of plywood on top of the trailer and bolted it down.”
He now has seven employees.
‘We need more Bryans’
Noting that her husband was buying entire pallets of bottled water at Menards, spending $400 to $600 a week, and giving away his own clothes, Tammy Ring suggested he start a Facebook fundraiser. “I’m, like, ‘OK, that’s why you’re an accountant. I get it,’ ” he said. “I’m telling you, this is probably the greatest experience of my life. I’m not religious, but I 100 percent believe. I don’t go to church, but I do believe God has saved my life.”
In mid-July, Ring began visiting other homeless camps in Minneapolis, averaging 10 to 15 a week, he said.
He has helped people move, found storage units for them and has shopped for them via FaceTime. He plows snow, empties trash and organizes supply tents. When someone asked for a Christmas tree, Ring arranged for the donation and delivered it along with donated wrapped gifts.
Ring’s efforts have “turned into something I could never have imagined,” he said. “A lot of people recently have donated their stimulus checks, which just blows my mind. We’re talking $700, $1,200.”
“Bryan is always grinding and has always been about supporting his communities,” said Mike Willenbring, a longtime friend of Ring’s who owns Manger Restaurant & Wine Bar in Bayport. “He has really made it easy for people to donate by accepting donations at his house and then hand-delivering them himself. It’s obvious how important this cause is to him and how passionate he is still after months and months of tireless work. He’s doing the work that I think many people wish they were doing, including myself, except he’s not coming up with excuses not to do it. He just does it.”
Many, including Abby Brown, have been moved to set up their own donation drives on Ring’s behalf. Brown has collected items at her house in Marine on St. Croix and at Scandia Elementary School, where she works as a support teacher. She also has shopped at thrift stores “for down coats and wool sweaters” and has helped facilitate discounts on coats, she said. “Bryan’s heart is sincere in his care for the homeless of his ‘hood,’ ” she said. “It pulses through his veins with a relentless desire to make life better for them. His updates on Facebook and Nextdoor keep real what is happening for those of us who don’t travel to the Cities. He has inspired and informed with passion. We need more Bryans in our world.”
‘At least one extra thing’
When temperatures started dropping this winter, Ring and other volunteers began visiting the camps more often. “Now, it’s just become clear, it’s helping people stay alive,” he said. “Before, it was just getting necessities — clothing and food — but it’s completely different, summer to now, just knowing that somebody could freeze to death.”
As he walked through a camp in Northeast Minneapolis recently, Ring emptied trash cans, recycled a cardboard box and checked to make sure that the sand he had brought to spread over the icy ground was sufficient.
“This whole place was so icy, it was unbelievable,” he said. “I always try to do at least one extra thing while I’m out here, besides, you know, just talking to people, which is huge.”
Ring, who visited six camps Jan. 27, said he has never had any issues while dropping off donations. “Every once in a while, I’d get the strange eye from somebody, and I’d have to let them know, ‘I’m Powderhorn. I’m South Side,’ you know what I mean?” he said. “From there, realistically, relationships were built. For me, it’s where I grew up. I genuinely care about these people.”
The root causes of homelessness are complex, Ring says. Some can’t stay at homeless shelters because they can’t handle following rules; others fear for their safety, he said.
“Everybody has their reason for why they are out there,” he said. “I, for one, have never judged nobody.”
Ring said he would like Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to tour the camps with him and other volunteers and see firsthand how people are living. “They should get to know the people in these camps,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to be out here. It is mind-boggling that there is so much devastation, depression, drug usage and mental illness and no real solution to help these people. Housing is the first step, of course. Real hands-on treatment and job placement are next.”
‘Where you are needed’
Francis “Louisiana” Chryn, 39, who has been homeless since he was 14, said he and others at the camp appreciate Ring’s open-mindedness.
“There’s nobody out there who really gives a damn about people like us, except for Bryan,” he said. “He sees what we go through in our daily struggles and tries to help out as much as he can, especially with firewood. We’ve got a nice community down here. We all try to help each other as much as possible.”
Ring said he will continue to do what he can — for as long as he can.
“You’re just trying to instill hope,” he said. “You look someone in the eyes, and you see that they are at their absolute lowest, but they see you, and then, all of a sudden, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, there is hope in my life.’ I’ve just done the work, made the connections, never judged. I honestly believe that God puts you where you are needed.”