I first started hearing the term “homeless” around 1990. It was a welcome replacement for more prosaic terms like “bums” or “bag lady.” At that time, I believed homelessness was a crisis that required immediate emergency action.
Twenty-five years later the crisis continues, except it’s more like the new normal. Large numbers of people are sleeping in the woods and on the street, waiting in line for free meals, and holding cardboard signs at intersections. Now I’m wondering if the term, homeless, has become a mental tool for distancing ourselves from people for whom the social safety net has failed.
Whatever the nomenclature, we tend to put these people in a mental box and then shove that box to the back of the mental closet where we store things we will deal with another day, when there’s more money, more time or more bandwidth available.
A better approach might start with the following proposition: homeless people are people. Pretty radical, eh? It follows that each homeless individual is worthy of respect and compassion, no less or more than any other person in society. Here’s what I learned from three of the people I approached on the street last week.
John Chacon’s family moved to Centralia from California when he was 17. He enlisted in the army and was twice deployed to Iraq. He has excellent survival skills and has the right gear to be comfortable sleeping outdoors. He carries a large backpack everywhere he goes, which he feels makes him a target for the police and suspicious staff at retail stores. John is a writer. He uses his daily one-hour allocation of internet access at the library to do his writing, which is occasionally published in Works in Progress.
Beth Reser grew up in Centralia, one of 10 adopted children. Beth and her late husband were union iron workers for many years. Beth is now 50 and has been on the street since her husband was hospitalized five years ago. He died this year.
Beth is bothered by carpal tunnel syndrome and other health effects of the heavy work she did when she was younger. She feels she no longer has the physical fitness required for iron-work, but she likes to work and checks the internet daily, searching for short-term gigs.
When I met her, she had just learned there was no room for her that night at the Interfaith Works overnight shelter. The shelter gives priority to the most vulnerable people. Because Beth is in good mental and physical health, she has a low chance of getting a bed at the shelter.
Instead, she walks around Olympia all night, making sure to stay in areas with good lighting. She avoids drugs and alcohol, because she needs to have full use of her faculties to avoid dangerous situations. Beth enjoys working on bicycles and regularly volunteers at a program that rebuilds used bicycles for disadvantaged kids.
Bri Kigar-Blazes grew up in Florida and is just about to turn 25. Her mother died when she was 17. Her father, who she had not previously met, was awarded custody of Bri and brought her to Thurston County in 2007. That arrangement didn’t last long, as her father was not prepared for life with a teenager. Bri soon moved out, and her father moved to Alabama. Since losing her job in 2008, Bri has been living in motels and on the street. Lately she has been setting up her tent by the railroad tracks in Tumwater. She has to carry and keep track of a heavy backpack. Bri was treated for mental illness beginning at the age of seven, but has not received treatment since moving to Thurston County eight years ago.
Of course, there is more to the stories of these four individuals. And there are hundreds of other people living on the streets, couch-surfing, camping, or sleeping in cars in Thurston County. Each of these individuals is worthy of your respect and most would tell you an interesting story if you only asked. Don’t wait for the homelessness crisis to end to include people like John, Beth and Bri in your community.
Paul Elwood is an amateur philosopher, investment management professional and member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. He can be reached at olyelwood@gmailcom.