Apprehension and nervousness weakened my resolve when I sat down to write this article. While several of the homeless who have died this year have left their mark on me and others, Sherrie, you were special.
I have had extensive and personal interactions with many who have passed on this year. I’ve listened with quiet respect as they’ve shared stories of lives gone tragically wrong and melancholic family histories. All these conversations and the particulars of individual life rob them all of their “other” status — their impersonal nonidentity. Instead, they were real people — more than mere one-dimensional stick figures that some paint with their own judgments and prejudices. They were citizens of our community, with all the strengths and weaknesses that we all share.
Danny was a veteran tormented by his experiences. Lucky, who turned out not to be so, died alone at his campsite along the railroad tracks, succumbing to ever failing health. I remember when nurse Jan Fadden and myself, during the homeless count, visited your tent a few weeks after I had found your body there. It was still abandoned and eerily peaceful. Your ever present hat that we found there the only evidence of your existence.
Shakey died in the park, his wheelchair nearby. Larry died peacefully at Sarah House a few weeks after having played tag between a homeless shelter and the hospital. “Bob” died in a motel seeking rest from the shelter and his van that had become his home. Bernice, I miss our early morning philosophical conversations on the nature of homelessness and those who serve them — not always a pleasant judgment on your part, but why should it be? An elderly woman dying on the streets is simply wrong.
Kat, your death likewise cut deep. There was so much history between us, so many stories, so many starts and stops to your life. Death played tragic and ironic with your passing. So many miss you — I miss you. Your smile and your guarded eyes remain an imprint. Jeff, Death was simply cruel when he took you mere days after you had gotten out of the shelter and into your own place. I hope your daughter took a measure of comfort that after all these years you were at least housed when Death came looking to claim your soul — yet another veteran lost.
But Sherrie, your death was the cruelest — the hardest to absorb. I have visited your camp more times than I can remember, along was Dr. Lynne Jahnke, who evaluated you with her professional eyes and compassionate heart. She would often lay to rest my increasing concern about your deteriorating condition. Of course, Death had the final say. Dr. J and I witnessed his grime approach, and we could only offer you comfort and companionship as he did so.
I remember the time you had a seizure and I hustled over to you. Bending down, you looked up and asked me, “Did you see the ghost that pushed me?” Then there was the time that Fadden and I bribed you with a hamburger to come into the shelter and get medical treatment. While waiting in the drive-through line you told us that 65 percent (not 75 percent nor any other figure) of the shelter staff and guests were zombies. When we asked you where we fit into that equation, your infectious laugh said it all.
Your innocent smile and outlook on life humbled one and all. I will always remember seeing you in your tent behind one of the most expensive hotels in the city, sitting quietly as you read your Bible. Your simple faith was deeply moving.
But it was visiting with you and your children at Sarah House that retaught me a lesson one should never forget. Regardless of how we end up in life — dirt poor or millions of dollars in assets — family and friends are the real wealth. You last saw your children when they were 14 and 11. Now they are young adults with families of their own. The way your daughter gently fed you the waffles topped with strawberries and your son caressed your face with his soulful eyes as he watched said it all: Nobody is a throwaway. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t see you as a “pigeon.”
We are all interconnected. The love shared among the three of you again told me that while we cannot beat Death at his game, we can exit this life with dignity. That we should honor the soul within each of us, and when we reach out to the least humble among us we are in fact reaching out to a spiritual realm that is larger than ourselves. Doing so reaffirms our humanity, the goodness of our souls. All, in your individual ways, will be missed. Rest in peace.
I pray and hope that none of the harsh and hateful commentators who have been flooding the local Internet and news media lately ever have a family member afflicted with mental illness who find the streets home, nor an elder parent, nor a son or daughter broken by war. Nor ever have to learn in combat that we all have a breaking point that can drive any of us over the edge.
Referring to the homeless as bums, pigeons, zombies, mosquitoes and mentally addled reminds one of another time when a state defined an innocent and defenseless religious minority in such terms — all necessary to isolate and dehumanize so appropriate horrific and evil solutions could be implemented. It’s an age-old curse. And for those who live a life that includes a spiritual dimension a wise friend reminded me: God created us in his image not that of a pigeon.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.