What Brings You Here?

Minnehaha Tent Encampment, 11/26/20, 8:00AM, Thanksgiving Day.

Back in June, early on a gentle morning, my dog Roo and I walk through an encampment of 40 or so tents set up on the west side of Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. A man in his 50s stands over a Coleman stove making a pot of coffee.

“Good morning!” I say.

“Morning. That’s a cute dog you have there,” he replies.

“Thanks. Her name is Roo and I’m Gail. How are things going for you here?”

“Nice to meet ya. I’m Bobby.* It could be worse. There’s a few troublemakers but I steer clear of them.”

Joined by older camper named John, we chat about the nice weather, and the beautiful location under large oak trees. They don’t address why, as individuals with a past, present, and future, they dwell in tents in a public park.

I walk on among the rainbow-colored tents, some with lawn chairs out front, others surrounded by large plastic bags, some covered by tarps. A young man sits alone on a bench. Again, I introduce myself and ask him how things are going.

“Yeah, I’m Jason and my girlfriend and I want to get the hell out of here. This is no kind of life. My uncle up in Red Lake says we can stay with him, but no drinking or he’ll kick us out. That’s good with me.”

His girlfriend comes up and sits next to him on the bench. She is a tiny woman, unhealthily thin, with sallow skin. He introduces her as Fern. Jason continues to talk, telling me that he is a drummer and wants to get back to to playing in a drum group. I tell him that I used to work for the Red Lake Forestry Department. Then we discover an acquaintance in common. He invites me to attend a pow-wow up there. I tell him that I’ll try.

Fern sits silent, with closed eyes and bowed head. Then she lets out a low moan. “Sorry, I’m but I’m so hungover,” she says.

Roo is getting restless so we part company.

The question I refrain from asking is this: What brings you to this place in life?

For a fascinating, difficult, and transformative year of my life, I worked as director of spiritual care at a men’s maximum security prison. What brought the inmates there was not a question I asked in relating to them as individuals. What I found of more interest were three related questions: Who are you today? What do you hope to achieve? What do you need to get there?

Circumstances beyond control, poor life choices, and mental or physical ailments land people in predicaments. Why are you struggling with substance use disorder? Why are you a repeat felon? Why are you unemployed? Why are you lacking education or job skills? Why you struggling with untreated mental or physical health problems?

What matters much more than “why” is what an individual needs to help them thrive.

Few people choose to live without permanent housing. My daughter-in-law, as a nurse (later a nurse practitioner), worked with homeless vets. There were those who, because of trauma, did not feel safe indoors. They preferred living in the open. Others, being in a state of active addiction, avoided housing that requires abstinence. Mental health issues prevented others from getting along with others in a congregate setting.

No human being should be living in a tent in a park. How would you feel spending Thanksgiving Day or any other day there? What’s the answer for those in such a regrettable situation? The answer is that there is no one answer. For example, one size will never fit all in terms of housing. Some simply need help getting into an apartment. Others need sober housing. Still others may need a harm-reduction setting. Even if every one of these people were housed, providing housing alone is like giving charity. It helps today, but doesn’t necessarily provide what is needed for a long-term positive change in circumstances.

Some look to the past success of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression of the 1930s. ‘Let’s give people jobs! Make them work hard and they’ll be fine!’ I think this is truly a laudable idea for some who lack homes or employment. For others, not so much. It seems that current methods of addiction treatment are not successful for many addicts. Is anyone working on new models? Solid mental health treatment facilities or access to therapists are sorely lacking. Working in prison system taught me that the current model of lengthy incarceration, solitary confinement for rule infractions, and dehumanizing conditions does not make people better. Also the stigmatization of those with a felony record is permanently damaging to the life prospects of those individuals.

On and on it goes. Dear friends, where do we begin?

  • Names of people met are changed for privacy.

Peace vs. Fear

What feeling do you get from this image?

More and more Americans, many of whom would be considered “decent people”, are buying weapons for self-defense. Is this really the best response to the perception of an increasingly violent society?

We each need to answer this for ourselves, of course, as we do all ethical questions which face us in life. My hope is that arming yourself does not become a reflexive response to unexamined fear.

Violence is not the opposite of peace. Fear is the opposite of peace. Peace is an active attitude of trust, contentment, compassion, serenity and gratitude. Fear robs us of peace. We expect the worst, while buying into the idea that danger is always lurking outside the door.

What are the odds that you will find yourself in the position to shoot, or even threaten another human being with a gun? The odds vary by where you live, those with whom you associate, your personal habits, and your level of reactivity.

Every morning I walk by a tent encampment in a nearby park. Assuming that you live in a home, do these people have more to fear than you? Very likely so. Life is dangerous for those who lack safe housing, whether it be an encampment, a shelter, or home in an area with high levels of criminal activity.

This leads to the question of why a growing numbers of individuals, whom many of the “homed” fear, are “homeless.” We all know the answers–destructive personal habits, poor financial choices, mental health issues, or a criminal history which makes housing and employment difficult.

Why do people commit crimes? The answers overlap with why people lack homes.

Rather than spending your time buying guns, attending gun safety training, and going to a shooting range, what about making your community a better place for all people? Work for candidates who choose not to promote fear to get elected. Volunteer for organizations that provide jobs, affordable housing, job training and support, addiction assistance, and mental health counseling. Or use some of the money you save by not buying guns to start your own campaign or organization!

Peace trumps fear every time, my friends.