Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Giving Thanks in Anacortes

On call in the emergency room this evening, I encountered my first homeless person in the city of Anacortes, WA.

This coastal town of 15,000 didn't strike me as a likely destination for homeless folks. A good number of people work at the local Shell Oil refinery. The health care industry employs many to care for the aging population. There are also a number of suburban-looking communities springing up in the gateway to the San Juan Islands. I figured that this hamlet would have its share of low income families given the depressed state of the shipbuilding and fishing industries here, but homelessness? Where are the services? In my ten days here, I just haven't encountered any signs. And it's not like I don't know how to look... I don't imagine that there are civic resources like might be found in the larger urban centers. The staff in the Island Hospital ER helped me understand my misjudgment. Tonight, I was the a civic resource.

Adult homelessness is often confounded with mental illness, substance use and malnutrition. This is very apparent in America's urban ER's. Tonight's case featured mental illness, but not a particularly severe type. I learned that the homeless here either live in cars or are "walkers." Walkers follow routes to keep them awake when personal safety is involved or the elements are an issue. In Seattle, this could include frequenting 24 hour grocery stores, night owl bus lines and busy streets like the Ave. or Broadway. In Anacortes, it's the Safeway and the hospital. My first brush with homelessness here happened to coincide with one of the first nights the temperature dipped to 25 degrees F. (That's frigid for the Pacific Northwest!) Our walker arrived after the frost had already tinged the windshields in the parking lot.

It actually doesn't matter why this individual presented to the ER, just that it is our job to provide care. The attending physician said something that really resonated with me. "About the most humane thing we can do for these folks is to provide a meal and a safe place to eat it." We may not have been able to provide a medical solution for this patient tonight, but I could heat some food and sit to chat with our guest. Was that chicken parmesan Thanksgiving dinner?

I'll soon be returning to my wife in Seattle knowing that today and every day, I have much to be thankful for.


Sarah Robey said...

happy thanksgiving one day late...

christinemm said...

I know a man of about age 45 who is homeless by choice. He also chooses to live in other non-conformist ways including not following some laws.

He is able-bodied and works for cash. He has lived out of his van, crashes at friends summer homes when he knows they are not there, and lately has been allowed to crash at his parents house for some nights. And his latest venture of the last few years includes living in South America in the winter to avoid the cold New England winters. He claims you can live like a king where he goes, for $15 a day.

He is getting away with things like breaking some laws because so far he hasn't been caught doing something that would get him arrested. Yet he is living a 'fringe life' of non-conformity, "just getting by".

It is actually pretty interesting to talk with him about why he makes the choices he does.

I don't think he is mentally ill.

I also feel that his steady consumption of alcohol is probably actually alcoholism and clouds his thinking and reasoning about his justification of his lifestyle being 'just peachy', or helps him fog out the negative parts of the reality of his life.

He speaks with happiness of his choice to be homeless and says he does not want to be tied down.