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.