Home is Where You Hang Out (updated April 8)

Our government says “stay at home.” I can do that, happily. Just the other evening, I was savoring my view of the Okanogan River in its ceaseless, silent flow past my home, when I became aware of a raucous party in Pioneer Park. The small park is about a quarter-mile downstream, where the river bends south, giving me a clear view of  activity there. A dozen-or-so people were clustered around the gazebo, definitely not social-distancing.

The park was built some forty years ago, the vision of the late Loretta Nansen. She conquered U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resistance to putting a park on top of their flood dike.  Her persuasive abilities convinced Phil Cleveland, M.D., whose hobby was carpentry, to build the gazebo. The park was thoughtfully landscaped with trees, benches, and native vegetation along the engineered riverbank. Just one block off Main Street, Pioneer Park was destined to be downtown’s beauty spot, a place for respite and refreshment.

Army Corps at work in Pioneer Park last summer. The gazebo (visible above the cloud of dust) survived.

Things did not turn out as Loretta envisioned. Many years later, the city removed the maturing trees to make the park less inviting to the homeless. I was still scratching my head over that one when the Army Corps thundered in last summer with heavy equipment, shoring up the dike with massive boulders. The native vegetation (aka wildlife habitat) disappeared. A botanist with the Corps promised me that willows will come up amidst the boulders. I have yet to see any sign of them. Much of the grass, where people walked or stretched out to catch the sun, was destroyed, too.

Still, people hang out there. Stay at home? I’m guessing most at the gazebo that evening were homeless. After volunteering at the Okanogan Community Homeless Shelter over the winter, I no longer use “homeless” as a generic label. Now I know names and faces: Mac and Abby and Regina and George. I know some of their stories, some of their ambitions. What I don’t know is where they are now. The shelter closed at the end of February as the weather warmed and volunteer energy had diminished to barely burning embers. I didn’t spot anyone I recognized among the party-goers.

I admit that if the shelter had kept operating, I would not have been able to continue. My task was to sit in a tiny office, knee-to-knee with the guests, recording their background information and spending an hour in chit-chat to make sure everyone was “dry and sober.” Not a safe environment for this 75-year-old in the midst of a pandemic.

The $2 trillion CARES Act contains $4 billion for homeless assistance, about a third of what advocates say is needed. An analysis by the National Alliance to End Homelessness predicts that “homeless individuals infected by COVID-19 will be twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die than the general population.” Consider that cost.

I don’t have the magic solution for homelessness. I acknowledge activities by some homeless individuals are a headache for city officials. The answer is not in making a park so unwelcoming that only the homeless are willing to gather there. That $4 billion is certainly part but not all of the answer. It’s only when we look at homeless individuals with compassion instead of judgment, only when we wrap empathy around charity, then maybe we’ll be getting somewhere.

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