Home is Where You Hang Out

Our governor says we must “stay at home.” I can do that, happily. Just the other evening, at the end of one of those perfect early-spring days, I relaxed on my patio. As I savored my view of the Okanogan River in its ceaseless, quiet flow, I became aware of a raucous party at the small park a quarter-mile downriver. The park hugs the river where it bends south, so I can clearly see activity there. A dozen-or-so people were clustered around the gazebo, definitely not social-distancing. 

Some forty years ago, I attended the dedication of this tiny park. It’d been the vision of the late Loretta Nansen, a determined civic activist, who conquered U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resistance to a park on top of their flood dike.  Her persuasive abilities convinced a local doctor, 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.

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Army Corps at work in Pioneer Park. The gazebo (barely 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, but I have yet to see any sign of them. Much of the grass, where people walked, 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 a homeless shelter over the winter, “homeless” is no longer 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.

In the wall-to-wall news coverage of Covid-19, the peril to the homeless is getting scant attention. Vox reported the first known Coronavirus death of a homeless person occurred in California’s Silicon Valley, adding “The homeless population’s lack of stable shelter, access to proper hygiene, and basic food supplies makes them a particularly vulnerable group …” 

In the recent $8.3 billion bill passed by Congress, there were no funds specifically allotted to homelessness. What of the trillions yet to come? Where in all that money for airline, hotel and cruise industries will we find space for the homeless? Everybody has to be somewhere, even when there’s no home to “stay at.”

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