Our overnight homeless houseguest Scotty left my house a few minutes ago. I feel like I know him pretty well….he was one of the Occupy Duluth campers at Paul Robeson Ballroom Kozy Courtyard last summer. Summer is gone now, and so is the camp we built. That makes three times we have been evicted. The forecast is wind and rain, soon to turn to snow.
I know where he is going. There is a liquor store a few blocks away, and he has a few dollars in his pocket. He needs a 40 oz. beer every morning. Later there will be synthetic weed to smoke. The homeless folk can be counted on to share what they have. It sure isn’t much, but they share it.
There is a homeless camp near the lake. Several people crash there every night. There is a tarp to sleep under and other bodies to help you keep warm. There is almost certainly alcohol and smoke.
Last night my homeless friend and his buddy joined the peace signs on the corner of Lake Street and Superior, a wind driven and dangerous place to stand. They had been released from Detox in the morning and were well on their way to going back in again. The shelters will not admit anyone who shows signs of intoxification.
Traffic is heavy. There is a crowd of us there every Friday night, holding signs of peace and hope. The drivers know us. They see us here every week. Many of them honk to voice support of our suggestion that peace is better than war.
Street folk are beginning to swell our numbers. One of our steadfast pillars of dedication to the cause, who carries an American flag and a sign asking passersby to honk for peace, was afraid Scotty would fall in the street and be run over. I tried to explain to him that many of these folk have been homeless and drunk for years and years. They are survivors and refugees. Stumble drunk they may be and senseless on synthetic, but they know to stay out of traffic. For the most part.
Another homeless man showed up, someone I have not met before. He says his name is Randy. He is a sight, with one blind eye that stares at invisible walls and a homeless uniform of assorted drab motley. He grabs a sign and dances out to the median, going right up to the stoplighted drivers and pressing his face to the closed windows. Of course we know that someone will call emergency to complain. He is committing a fatal error by acting in a way likely to scare tourists. That, of all things, will draw cops fastest.
Another of our regular sign wavers runs across the traffic lanes to talk some sense to him. He eventually waivers and surrenders to the prodding and they rejoin our little group on the corner. I can see that a few of our stalwarts wish homeless and intoxicated volunteers would just go away. I don’t blame them for that. I have worked with homeless refugees in camp all summer and I have seen what can happen, what will happen. There is plenty of damned frustrated anger to go around, and when it bursts out it is most often directed at other refugees, or sometimes at the property of people who do have homes to go to.
The weather is getting worse and my partner suggests we should take our summer camp friend home with us. I agree. We already have one semi-permanent homeless guest, staying with us until she can get back on her feet. She is an old friend from pre-homeless days and has a part-time job near our apartment. She is trying to get hired on as a regular employee, and she is working to get her own place soon. We love her and she has pretty much taken over the cleaning and most of the cooking, but our apartment is small and a little crowded with four people.
This morning Scotty wakes up and I give him a cup of coffee. He says he slept really well on our couch, is grateful to be dry and warm and safe. We talked for a while about trying to get the city to allow a full scale refugee camp, and about what it would take to organize the homeless folk to demand shelter as their right. Never mind the codes and regulations. If the city cannot shelter them, then they should have the right to be left alone to make whatever poor accommodation they can build themselves. There is no reason to deny them warming fires and tents. It is all they have. This is an emergency. People are dying on the street.
“Well, they have made their choices,” I heard a cop say. He meant that if they have to sleep in the bushes, it is because they will not stop using street drugs and alcohol. They could stay in the homeless shelters, crowded and restricted as they are, if only they wouldn’t take drink and smoke to ease the pain. If you want other people to help, you must fit their definition of good being. Never mind what it takes to survive on the street. Be good. Santa only brings gifts to good children. Be good or be damned.
I don’t want cops to think it is their job to divide the good from the vile. I myself don’t know enough about other lives to make choices for them. Even the desert fathers, masters of self-sacrifice, warned us that our judgment would come back at us. You will be judged, they said, as you have judged others.
I am not religious, but my spirit recognizes wisdom. If you judge them evil and deserving of punishment, you too will be judged the same, that is, evil and deserving to be punished. Pointing out the errors others have made, you reveal the evil resident in your own heart. I do believe we, as a human culture, must love and care for the least of our brothers and sisters as we care for ourselves, or we risk losing our own humanity.
So how do we shelter the adamantine homeless? The problem resolves itself, even if some of the homeless will have no shelter but the bush. If we cannot build and regulate a shelter for these stubborn indigent, we can and must at least let them build such shelters for themselves as they are able. Give them a place, we have plenty of places. Give them plastic sheeting and set up sanitation and feeding stations for them. Do not banish your own heart. Sometime before the end, you are certainly going to need it.