By Wayne Cooke
As I drove into the Graham Post Office parking lot to mail a letter, I waved to a middle-aged woman and her teen-aged daughter. After depositing the letter, I walked over to them. The mother is named Teresa and her daughter is Hope.
Months earlier, I had met them in the course of arranging a visit by four “homeless in Graham” people to an evening meeting of the Graham-Kapowsin Community Council. The meeting discussed the “homeless problem” with “the homeless” actually present, something seldom done. Graham community leader Matt Hamilton, in particular, plied them with searching and relevant questions, trying to understand their situation and resources.
But Hope was indignant as I approached them in the parking lot.
“That mean lady from the post office told us to get back to Safeway where we belong!” Hope told me.
It didn’t help that I agreed with that mean lady. “No, you can’t be here”, I said.
But, of course, they didn’t belong at Safeway, either, for the same reason. They didn’t belong anywhere. They “camped” in woods away from public view, surviving the cold rains of winter as well as possible. It’s not an enjoyable life.
“I’m tired of being homeless”, Teresa said. “I’d be happy to work for a place to live, just for the shelter!”
Teresa and Hope were not starving thin. They got food by “panhandling”, Teresa’s term for begging. But why were Teresa and Holly and others so locked into surviving on the charity of others? Was it silly to think there might be simple useful work an able-bodied person could do to earn shelter and food? It didn’t make sense to my middle class mind, and I was curious. Teresa was my chance to learn more. I asked her if I could write about her, starting when she was young.
Teresa grew up in Eatonville, enjoying softball and roller-skating. She earned money to go to the swimming pool by mowing lawns and doing other yard work. Her parents were “okay” but she still remembers a time when she and her young brother were left in the back of the parked car while the parents spent two hours in a tavern. I asked what her father did for a living and felt a shock at her answer:
“He sometimes panhandled”. He also picked up odd jobs, did lawn work, and anything else he found.
I remembered how strong parent influence is and how, in one way or another, we all tend to copy our parents.
School in Eatonville was not easy for Teresa. She especially hated math, and once got mad and threw the book at her teacher. She did not graduate, but got married to Ralph in 1992. It was a good marriage. Both sometimes panhandled, but also did whatever work they could find. They learned to recognize mushroom species and, for years, picked mushrooms for a supplier that shipped them overseas. They had two children, Hope and Rodney. Rodney now lives in Eatonville and this year will graduate from EatonvilleHigh School, thanks to the urging and support of his girl friend.
Teresa had been only seven when she learned about cancer. Her older brother developed leukemia and died. Then, in the late ‘80s, her father developed colon cancer and died. Then, the second of her two brothers also died of cancer. Finally, on November 11, 2012, her husband, Ralph, was diagnosed with lung cancer. That began the same ordeal so many others have gone through, made more difficult by lack of money and resources. Teresa and her sister were invited by the Franciscan Hospice House on Bridgeport Way to stay with Ralph during his final week of life. Teresa could not praise the Franciscans enough. She was very grateful for their support and especially for Meredith, the hospice nurse that cared for them. Ralph died in September of 2013. A Franciscan counselor made arrangements with the Edwards Funeral Home for a simple cremation at no cost to them.
I asked how she handled his loss after 21 years of marriage. “I threw myself into self-destructive mode”, she answered. “He was my everything”. She drank heavily and didn’t care what happened to her. “He’s up there”, Teresa pointed to heaven, “and I will join him some day”.
But now Teresa is here in Graham, and I am asking her what she thinks might happen that could get them real shelter. The word must have reminded her of their camp, because she began telling me how people have damaged and desecrated their campsite when they were away.
“I’m tired of it!” she said, and burst into tears. “I’m tired of sleeping in a wet, cold sleeping bag! I’m tired of being wet and dirty! On Easter Sunday, someone stole the filled Easter basket a person had given us!
Teresa’s story might help us with understanding, but it doesn’t answer the question in the title: “Where can Teresa go?” There is no place – no realistic “fix” for the homeless. “Homeless camps” give temporary help but change nothing. Other developed countries have solved the problem. Why can’t we find simple ways for them to work to earn minimal shelter and shower?
Then we can stop giving them charity.
© 2014 Wayne Cooke
Wayne Cooke of Graham is a former elementary school teacher in the Bethel and Franklin Pierce School Districts, and has also taught in a variety of youth programs at the Chief Leshi School in Tacoma. He is the founder of the Graham News and the Graham Citizens Project.
He is a frequent contributor to the Mountain News-WA.