Forum: Solving homelessness helped by having a hunter’s compassion

I talked to a man who once found a pheasant near death from the cold; he revived it to watch it fly off.

By Stuart Heady / Herald Forum

Missing from discussions about high housing prices and other factors producing homelessness is a mystery element that does not seem to be on the table when the perennial nature of the homeless crisis is under discussion. What is that?

I wrote a story for the Austin Chronicle in March 1989, 35 years ago, about a protest action to call attention to homelessness. In the 1980s, we had begun seeing homeless people on the streets, but at first they were mainly patients from the state’s psychiatric hospital who had been discharged but were not welcome back home. Some people were camping out among the trees around town. But the word “homeless” had only just begun to see common usage.

Affordable housing was an issue then, but not like now. I was paying $400 a month. Rent had been rising, but was still cheap, compared to today. You heard about a lack of jobs, especially during a recession, but I do not recall hearing about the high price of medical care as a general discussion. It seemed back then to be about self-reliance and determination to be independent, not too needy about either jobs or welfare.

Being in between meant sleeping outside, even in the cold.

That tough independence is still part of it. I believe author Louis L’Amour’s descriptions of Western characters are fundamental to how we still see ourselves, especially if we find ourselves outside; outside of conventional living, or outside in the literal cold. Recently, as the temperature fell to 20, then to 16 and down to 12, I was talking with a homeless man in his car, idling it to keep his heater on. He talked about hunting in colder weather than that, weather so cold he found a pheasant frozen to the ground. Instead of killing it, he warmed it up and let it fly away.

Does the Western spirit in us have the compassion of the hunter seeing a fellow creature in common peril against the elements? That is the mystery element.

Homelessness has always been a state of mankind. We have amplified it with medical science that makes miracles routine, but with staggeringly high costs. Housing is now exclusively for the buyer with the ability to meet the price, ratcheting up profits. There is no such thing as affordable housing when low-cost older houses have been torn down and the old flop houses and boardinghouses are gone.

Seniors who thought they were going to be comfortable in retirement are handling higher and higher costs of medical care, transportation and everything else. There are more seniors among the homeless population.

We need breakthrough thinking. This issue will not resolve itself. Local citizens and local governments can do something. All too often the first instinct is to look away or to adopt a “move along” attitude. It is not unusual for some people in one small community to escort homeless persons to a bus station or a ferry terminal, hand them the fare to somewhere else and wish them luck. Of course, someone’s elsewhere could be here, wherever we are. The Supreme Court heard recently, about whether cities should be able to make it criminal to sleep outside. But, legal or not, making it impossible to sleep somewhere won’t address a problem that is everywhere.

We are a society that deals with the medical aspect of human nature quite brilliantly, which means more people who might have died are living. A lot more people.

We need to address medical care financing somehow. The equivalent of homelessness in medical terms is people going without care. The No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical care bills. It would seem to be an insoluble problem. Like homelessness.

These problems relate to the same root cause: a failure to think deeply enough about problems so complex that they seem beyond human brain capacity. Our thinking must evolve and this will become the challenge of the 21st century.

The state of Washington has set up a whole administrative ecology of systems and funding to “end or prevent homelessness.” It is coordinated through regional call forwarding accessed by calling 211. Yet, it is hard to get through, fraught with bureaucratic reluctance to speak human and a complete lack of urgency. One waits and waits and waits over weeks and weeks and weeks. But it represents a massive outlay of funding and programs.

As confusing as the system is, it represents a step in the evolution beyond either Charles Dickens or Louis L’Amour. To make this work, will require everyone to pay attention and participate in some way, pushing for better results and accountability.

Stuart Heady lives on Camano Island.

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