“Somewhere between right and wrong, there is a garden.
I will meet you there.” ~Rumi
Dallas is a 57-year old Navy veteran. He was born in Oregon, but grew up in Washington State. As many of our military veterans are, Dallas is disabled from PTSD. He served in multiple tours, including the conflict in Libya, and along the No-Fly Zone in Iraq. Dallas was forward-deployed for an A6 squadron for a while, and also did search and rescue – recovering classified information on the black boxes or destroying the remains if the box could not be recovered. Part of his work included recovering the remains of pilots involved in crashes.
Despite these horrors, Dallas is quiet, humble, and gentle. He recalls meeting Nancy Reagan when she was flown onto the USS America off the coast of Norway while he was stationed on the carrier. “She was so pleasant,” he says, smiling at the memory. “She just wanted to be one of us – even came to eat with us, right there in the mess hall. She ate the same food we did. It was really nice.”
Dallas wants you to know that you shouldn’t be fearful of the homeless you see on the streets. “We’re not a threat,” he says. “I’m a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. We’re not going to harm you.”
I doubt that anyone plans on being homeless when they should be looking towards their retirement. Please remember that every homeless person you see isn’t crazy, and each one is a person — a human being — with a story of his or her own.
Here’s Marilyn, a 76-year old Navy veteran.
Marilyn lives at the homeless shelter in Port Townsend, WA. Both the women I’ve spoken with asked me to hide their faces for privacy and security reasons. Marilyn chatted with me while seated on her walker, and I noticed her hands resting on her cane. We were outside and the sun had moved off and a chill had moved in on us, and I had this sudden thought, as I gazed at her hands, that this could be my own mother.
After a difficult childhood in the foster care system, Marilyn enlisted in the Navy because, as she says, she “fell in love with big ships.” She was one of the first dental technicians to serve at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD – now known as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. When offered the opportunity to be the first woman on an aircraft carrier, Marilyn was conflicted. “It sounded like such a great chance. Just imagine being the first woman on an aircraft carrier! And how I loved big ships! But still…”
Marilyn’s history at Bethesda made her justifiably hesitant: She had been raped twice while at Bethesda, and says the thought of “being trapped on the ship with all those men and no way out” terrified her.
Despite these traumatic years, and the ensuing diagnosis of PTSD, Marilyn completed a double major in Teaching and Anthropology/Sociology. She still hopes to one day tutor children again.
Marilyn would like to make her way to Oregon to be with her brother after COVID-19 has cleared. In the meantime, she wants you to know that homelessness can happen to anyone. “You lose your way,” she says. “You just get lost somehow. After a while, life becomes a mundane, repeating, Groundhog Day.”
Jerry is 64 years old, is a James Dean fan, and suffers from a brain injury he received in his 30s. While he used to have steady work in the restaurant industry, shortly after his injury he started having seizures. One or two seizures on the job, and his employer found a way to terminate his employment. This happened over and over again, even though it’s illegal. “They’d always say business was slowing down and they had to lay me off or something,” he says, wistful. “But I don’t blame them. I mean, it’s a liability, right? What if I injured myself on the job while having a seizure?”
With less-than-steady work, he couldn’t afford rent, so Jerry couch-surfed for a while. When a friend called him and told him he needed help with his boat, which was docked here in Port Townsend, Jerry packed up his few things and drove up from Oregon to stay with his friend and work on the boat. Both of them liked it so much, they decided to stay in town instead of moving back.
But there wasn’t enough room for both of them to live on the boat long term, and Jerry found himself out on the streets in February, with no compensation for the work he’d done, and no place warm or clean to sleep. “You just dress in as many layers as possible,” he says.
Jerry tells me that when he finally was able to get a bed at the shelter, it “felt like heaven.” He adds, “I’m so thankful for this place. You have no idea.” The good news is that Jerry hasn’t had a seizure in a long time, and he’s anxious to get back to work once COVID clears and restaurants start hiring again.
“You know, I used to be like all these other people,” he says. “I’d see a homeless person up ahead of me and I’d cross the street. I didn’t want to deal with them. But once you’re in this situation, you feel subhuman, you feel less than everyone else. Other people look at you …” his voice trails off and tears well in his eyes.
“I’m just saying, if you’ve never been homeless, you don’t understand what it’s like. Try living on the street for one night and see how you do. Please just think about that before you judge us.”
Born and raised in Seattle, 60-year old Robert spent his working years in construction. When I asked what type of construction, he replied, “What haven’t I done?” and then laughed. He ended his career working on corporate buildings, including high rises for Microsoft and Boeing and worked on multiple projects for each company. He’s traveled around quite a bit during his life, and counts Alaska as his favorite state. “I especially liked the Inside Passage,” he says. “That was just great. Oh, and I’d put the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone on that list of favorite spots, too.”
He found his way to the shelter after falling on hard times. While his family has been able to help in the past, they just can’t help out right now, which brings him to his own bed at the shelter. “I understand,” he says when talking about his family. “I can only ask for so much from them.” On the wall above his bed, he’s posted cards and photos from his nieces and other family members, smiling faces of love shining down on him.
Robert’s quick smile and bright eyes would warm anyone’s heart. He’s friendly and well-spoken, and out-going in his modest way. When I asked what he wanted to tell others about being homeless, though, his smile faded a bit. He looked down at his hands for a moment before replying, “We’re human. Be kind to us. One kind word can make a big difference in some people’s lives.”
Lynn is 60 years old and originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She moved out to the Olympic Peninsula so she could be closer to her parents when they retired. Although she spent most of her working years in childcare, she did spend 2-1/2 years teaching conversational English in Japan and counts that as her favorite work memory. She loved the people, their friendly attitude, and how they welcomed her into their world.
She didn’t want her face photographed not only for privacy reasons, but also because she is quite shy. Lynn is always quick to greet me when I arrive at the shelter every week and the first to ask how I’m doing. When COVID clears, she’s promised to teach me how to play Spider Solitaire, which is not at all like the traditional solitaire game we all know. (I’ve since learned there are over 500 types of solitaire, many of which Lynn knows!)
Her message to everyone about homeless people is straightforward: “I want people to know that we’re human. Please treat us that way. We’re just like you. We’re harmless. Harmless. The things that you have – like clean laundry, clean socks – we’d like to have those luxuries, too. Treat us the way you treat yourselves.”
The first night we delivered dinners to the shelter, she held the door open for us, looked me square in the eye, and said, “God bless you. Really. God bless you.”
Lynn wasn’t just saying this to me – she was saying it to all of you as well. To everyone who’s been able to help either financially, or by sharing these stories – or even simply by being a bit kinder to the homeless person you always try to avoid on the street – to all of you, I pass along her message: God bless you.
Seventy-two year old Peter describes himself as the “most educated homeless man around.”
Having graduated from a liberal law school in Washington, D.C., he started his career as a lawyer for Native American tribes, and lobbied on their behalf in D.C., as well. Peter says he enjoyed his work and that it gave him a sense of accomplishment, but after a number of years in law, he watched as the doctors working with the tribe seemed to accomplish even more. “I worked with these doctors as we built a hospital for one of the tribes, and I thought, ‘Wow, look at what they do. So, I decided to go back to school,” he says. “I decided I wanted to become a doctor.”
Soon enough, he was working as a hospitalist – a career he loved even more than the law, and one from which he would retire after 15 years of success.
Peter says he is “a product of the 60s,” where everyone loves and respects everyone else, and where people work together to make the world a better place. It’s a belief he still holds in his heart.
“Anybody can become homeless,” he says. “Most people are one missed paycheck away from being homeless. But I hear people refer to us as ‘The Great Unwashed.’” Here, he pauses to laugh, then adds, “Trust me, I wash.”
Peter pauses and looks at the setting sun for a moment before hinting at his own situation: “Most people end up here because of family break ups.”
As we close out 2021, I ask that you think of others who may be less fortunate than you. It has been a difficult year for all of us, and kindness goes a long way. Just looking someone in the eye and saying, “Good morning,” with a genuine smile, can make someone’s day better — and it costs you nothing.
And for someone whose family break up has sent them to live in the streets, that kindness is priceless.
Thank you for being kind to others, and thank you for supporting our work.