I have worked for a psychiatrist and held crisis jobs where I regularly interacted with people with mental health issues. I understand some of the complexity of the problems of the unhoused, but obviously not all. I am more comfortable than most people in dealing with someone who is escalated. I also know better than some the danger of doing so.
The Tri-Cities have just begun to experience the spillover from Seattle in the west and Portland in Oregon. They have been sharing a new, troubling future for the last few years, with more persons seen standing on street corners with cardboard signs, dogs, and sometimes children. Unhoused individuals can be desperate and, in turn, occasionally violent.
Homeless camps have been steadily springing up for months in small groups of three or four on the east side. Even with the recent below-0 weather, there are RVs and pull campers with no vehicle attached in the same daily locations in the public parks. Cars with no windows, only plastic sheeting and duct tape, sitting along the Columbia Park Trail, pull-out parking areas converted from their intended day use by families, walkers, joggers, etc., into, at best, semi-permanent housing areas.
Situated less than a half mile from the entrance to Columbia Park, one office has had more than four interactions with strangers, asking for more than directions. They ask for money, food, and use of private staff bathrooms. One man was sleeping at night in their window wells, pulling garbage out of the office bin and tossing it on the ground.
Other people carrying sleeping bags and plastic bags with what appears to be all their possessions wander past parked cars and circle the building several times during the day. The owner was kind enough to allow the use of the staff bathroom when a young woman wandered in just after closing, pleading with him to let her use it. He was hesitant, alone, and headed home, but he relented. He felt bad for her situation. He felt terrible for her. He acted on the tenants of his faith.
It did not turn out well. Luckily no one was harmed, but without the owner’s permission, I won’t share the details here.
And for what? Anything she took in that short time was a tiny band-aid for her overall condition. It also gave an obviously desperate individual who may, or may not, have been alone critical information about the interior of the building, its contents, and its entries.
Every community, according to demographics, handles the homeless differently. Add to that personal experiences, and a person may do a complete 180 in responding to a situation.
When I was 15 years old, I went to work at the theater as a candy counter girl. I fell in love with the projectionist, a 19-year-old idiot named Mike. I only worked there for a few months, approximately 10 hours a week. In a pique of anger, my mother eventually made me quit.
The movie theater was old-fashioned and a single-screen, with a loge on the balcony. The entrance led patrons past an outdoor ticket box handled by an older guy named John, and through a double glass door, with the candy counter front and center flanked by two heavy wooden doors leading into the seating. The exit was to the right of the entrance, down a carpeted slope directly onto the sidewalk of the main street.
The atmosphere was rich with red velvet, gold trim, and the heavenly smell of fresh buttered popcorn. I was the youngest person working at the county counter with a 20-something skinny, dark-haired girl.
One cold night, as the crowd came in, I noticed a guy walking bizarrely, almost staggering, with locked knees and fists shoved into a nylon vest. A gimme cap was pulled down tight over short hair. It could have been a drunk walk, or “I’m so cold I’m about to die.” He wore glasses and was probably in his thirties. His clothes were filthy, unusual for a movie-goer in a small town on a Saturday night. He looked homeless, and there were many such individuals who passed through town. The $1.50 ticket for admission would provide hours of heat, a place to rest, and a bathroom.
I idly watched him from my position on the right. Suddenly, he stopped and jerked his head to his left, mouth agape.
He pulled his right fist out, shot it straight over his head, and suddenly charged the counter, not slowing, running into it with enough force to rattle the whole structure. His eyes were wild and blazing. I started backing up in alarm until my butt hit the back shelves a few feet behind me. He lunged over the counter, his other hand still in his vest, his fist waving inches from my nose as he stared me dead in the eyes. Without blinking, he repeatedly screamed, “You have the power! You have the power!”
I heard screams from female moviegoers and pounding feet as he was quickly removed with some effort by both John and Mike. He was drug forcefully away from me while repeatedly screaming the exact four-word phrase, twisting his head around to keep me in sight. The men pushed open the big swinging exit doors and bounced him unceremoniously onto the cold sidewalk.
They yelled, “Don’t come back, asshole!” and watched as the man stumbled to his feet. He stood there, silent, weaving his head back and forth, trying to keep me in sight, until they pulled the heavy doors shut, locking them. The owner, Merton, took me into his tiny office to ask if I was alright. I told him, no, I didn’t need him to call my dad to pick me up early, no, I wasn’t hurt, no, I didn’t know that guy.
Finally satisfied, he told me he wanted to escort me out when I left that night, down a half block to the market parking lot where my dad would be waiting in his blue truck, smoking Camel unfiltered, and listening to the radio. As usual for almost any truck in town, a loaded deer rifle would be in the rear window rack.
I returned to my counter, and several women patted my arm in concern, called me honey, asked if I was OK, and I nodded. My coworker, already bored, laughed and said I must have a new admirer.
When the night was over, we headed out. We rounded the corner of Josephs’s BiRite Market, and my father narrowed his eyes at Merton and then shifted to me. He rolled up his window, got out, and told me to get in. I watched the two men converse in front of the hood after Merton accepted a cigarette and tried not to cough and choke. I couldn’t hear them, just a low mumble of words.
After a few minutes, my dad shook hands with Merton, and as he got back into the driver’s seat, he said, “Thanks,” Merton waved and disappeared around the corner.
My dad didn’t turn left on the main street as usual on the way home. Instead, he turned right, following the path my friends and I took to “cruise main.” He said, “If you see that sonabitch, let me know.” We drove silently to the dark end of town, flipped a u-turn, and went back past the theater. Merton stood out front and shook his head at my dad as we passed, not in disapproval, but to indicate the guy wasn’t around. The small town streets rolled up at 9 pm, and a person walking was easily spotted.
We continued on home. My dad only asked me what the man had been shouting, and I told him. I wondered what was wrong with the guy. My dad shrugged, pushing in the cigarette lighter for a new Camel, and said, “Bat shit crazy flat-lander, I guess.” Being crazy was OK in our town. Being a flat lander, insulting slang for anyone not from the mountains, was only OK if you kept your stay short, spent money, and left the locals alone.
I learned early, in our small mining-turned-resort town, that strangers were dangerous.
After a moment of silence, he began to tell me about the family joke that I was a changeling child. His parents immigrated from Scotland, and they told him tales of babies born so beautiful the fey folk wanted them for their own, so they would switch the human child out with a fairy baby. The celts weren’t talking about Tinkerbell blonds with shimmery gossamer wings and golden dust; they described the fey as terrible entities, horrifying to look at, and with no love lost for humans.
The Little People were why miners placed bowls of milk at the entrance of mines up at Union Carbide. Not to ask for good luck but as protection from the fey, offering respect and sacrifice for the fey to not kill any men that day. Sort of like the mob but less organized.
This would be the first time I interacted directly with a mentally ill person who wasn’t my mother.
Who also wasn’t told of this incident.
My father said his people believed a changeling child always had a “shine,” an attraction to everything and everyone weird and wonderful, insane and dangerous. “You’ll meet a lot of crazies in your life, I guess,” he sighed. “I wouldn’t worry about it, that guy sounded crazy, not stupid.”
I remember this incident because of the response of all “normal” people when something uncertain and unknown enters their boundaries. We don’t want our fellow humans in pain, homeless, or desperate. But we don’t want to deal with them, either. Giving them money at the entrance to Winco, averting our eyes in embarrassment, and pretending a problem we don’t know how to fix doesn’t exist is the standard response.
We can’t tell the difference between a person who would welcome any intervention, any help, no matter how small, from the dangerous individuals. Most of us are just making it through ourselves one day at a time.
I have no answer to any of this. I worry about the people thrown away by society onto our streets, into our businesses, and sometimes homes. I also fear for the citizens who get up every morning and go to jobs, pay taxes, and strive to be decent people.
It’s getting harder every day for both sides.