Homeless policies on wrong path by not helping those who can’t help themselves

David Ross/ 2019 Olympian Board of Contributors
David Ross/ 2019 Olympian Board of Contributors sbloom@theolympian.com

Late last fall, a gentleman trespassed behind the building where I work, in an area where people are not permitted. He was rolling two large wooden spools and taking them toward a trailhead where several homeless people camp. We have had problems with drug trafficking, theft, trespassing, and littering, so I went to ask him not to cut behind our building. I was irritated, given that there are numerous “NO TRESPASSING” signs posted.

When I asked him why he was ignoring them, he was defensive, and told me he had permission. I told him that regardless of where or how he got the spools, he did not have permission to be back there.

Our interaction was a little tense at first, but we were both polite and he said he didn’t want to cause trouble and would be on his way. He also asked me not to raise my voice and to treat him like a human being. I found this kind of sad, as I thought he probably had been treated as subhuman, as many homeless people are, but I also felt justified in being assertive with anyone who trespassed.

There also was something compelling about him. He was young and struggling, like a previously “All-American” guy, but coming unraveled. He had a disfiguring burn on his forehead, about the size of a cell phone, that was blistered and fresh. He told me he needed the wooden spools for his campsite, to have a place for his lantern and other things. Apparently the burn came from falling down while holding his lantern. He said he had been “self-medicating” and lost his balance. I was surprised to hear him use that phrase, but didn’t pry as to why.

I told him to take one of the spools and roll it to the trailhead, and I would take the other. After we rolled the spools over the curb onto the path, I wished him well and returned to work, hoping he could honor my request not to trespass.

A week later, an Olympia firefighter stopped by my work. He said they were trying to find out about the trails nearby, which path went where, and how to get to the different encampments. I told him some of the details of the trails and mentioned that I thought only a new guy with a big burn on his forehead was down this part of the path. The firefighter’s face kind of went blank.

He said, “You won’t be seeing much of him anymore. He was our overdose last week. He’s why I’m here, following up. We got the call, but we weren’t clear on the best way to find his camp.” Apparently there were four overdoses in one afternoon, from particularly strong heroin laced with Fentanyl, and he was the sole fatality.

His name was Charles. He was 27 years old. He overdosed on Nov. 2 from mixed drug toxicity: the acute combined effects of methamphetamine, Fentanyl, and heroin. You won’t be seeing much of him anymore. He won’t get any chance to possibly turn his life around, go through treatment, get into transitional housing, get a fresh start. He’s dead. You could say Charles took his own life. It was his mistake, his overdose, his drugs.

You also could say that our community helped take his life. Or at least those in our community who think letting people live under a freeway overpass shooting heroin and doing meth is compassion. There are those who protest enforcing laws that might have turned him in a different direction: laws about drug use and drug possession, laws about trespassing and squatting, laws about nuisance crimes, laws that might help people who can’t really fend for themselves against their addiction or their mental illness, or both.

If I left my 9-year-old under a freeway overpass to fend for himself, our society would say that’s unacceptable. I could be arrested. Yet some so-called advocates, allies, and political leaders in our community have been preaching that letting people fend for themselves, who clearly cannot fend for themselves any better than my 9 year-year-old, is compassion. They suggest letting them live in a tent (if we’d only have garbage service for their encampments), or letting them live in a doghouse that we call a “Tiny Home” and pat ourselves on the back for, that that’s somehow higher on the compassion food chain. I disagree.

I worked for 10 years in psychiatric social work, crisis intervention, and chemical dependency treatment. Five of those years were as Thurston County’s Homeless Outreach case manager, providing direct services to mentally ill and chemically addicted homeless people. From what I have seen, it’s not Charles, it’s our community that is headed down the wrong path.

David Ross spent over a decade working locally in psychiatric social work, and now produces community events and festivals. He is a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors. Reach him at RossFeedback@iCloud.com.