The following essay is from a young woman named Gayle Tice. A few words about her and our relationship are in order before you read her story about encountering a homeless vet in Seattle.
Gayle is originally from Graham, WA, and I met her through the auspices of the Big Brother-Big Sister program when she was a “little sister” to a woman who knew of my work at the Pierce County Dispatch. The Big Sister knew that her little sister had an interest in writing and asked me to allow Gayle to “shadow” me for a day or two as a Dispatch reporter. I agreed.
Although still in high school, Gayle revealed that she had a hungry mind and a big heart, but hadn’t done much writing. I encouraged her to do some. Dramatically, a couple weeks after she shadowed me the Harrison murders occurred a few blocks from her home in Graham. I asked Gayle if she would like to write a story on her reactions to the death of the five Harrison children, who were reportedly killed by their father for reasons that are still unclear.
Gayle wrote briefly about that tragedy, and I hadn’t heard from her until I got a Facebook prompt from her mother recently. The mother announced that Gayle had graduated from Evergreen State College and was looking to launch a writing career, so I got in touch with the mom and Gayle and the following story is the result. Besides the piece on the vet, it also includes some of the email exchange between Gayle and me.
Writing As a Response to Trying Events
I was very happy to hear from you on Facebook. I have always appreciated your words of support. Mom is right about that. My writing is now focused in Seattle, but I can still see the mountain on a good day from this big city. We celebrate nice weather by saying the mountain is out.
My conversations with you tend to center around the more intense moments of my life. You asked me to write a piece in the wake of the Harrison murders. That was the first time I saw my writing as a way to respond to trying events.
Since then I have written my way to a better understanding of many things. Most of them did not center on any one geographic community, but rather on themes such as struggling with learning disabilities and the power of mentorship. These themes gave me a fair amount of material in college. My writing for publication has focused on promoting artists and small artistic businesses, and I have also ventured, perhaps naively, into advocating for those suffering homelessness. The piece below is not necessarily advocacy; it is just an account of an interaction that left a profound impression.
It was appropriate for the Real Change paper that it has been published in, which focuses on issues related to the homeless and low income. I hope it is appropriate for Mountain News-WA. I would be happy to take your critique and revise accordingly.
I can see how this piece could be made more relevant by bringing in facts on Washington State’s veteran population. I could possibly even investigate what veteran support organizations think the public can do in encounters such as this one. Or go into when calling 911 is appropriate; that is a tough question. There are so many homeless people that one might call 911 about.
I met a likely schizophrenic man apparently having a bad psychological day just a couple of hours ago. He didn’t seem to be injurious to himself or others and accepted a bottle of water. It is just so hard to know what is the appropriate response from an average citizen.
Thank you for your consideration. Have a nice day.
P.S. for the reader of this article:
The original piece was titled “A Painful Encounter.” The new title reflects a revised and deepened focus on responding to suffering.
People are Suffering, How Should We Respond in the Moment?
I met a homeless diabetic veteran on the evening of May 21. I was walking downtown, near the Pike Place Market, on my way to a gathering. I admit that my boyfriend and I walked past him at first. He didn’t speak very loudly, and we didn’t hear what he needed. But, before we had gone far ahead he spoke up.
He said he had been stranded for days trying to get twelve dollars together for a bus and a ferry ride. He wanted to get home to his mom who is a nurse. He showed us the military tattoo on his upper arm. Then he showed us the wound on his leg. It must have been the size of my hand, white and yellow and bad smelling. He had already had his other leg amputated. Serious, slow healing wounds are not uncommon with diabetes, and I can imagine that warm days outsidem – alone and apart from medical care – had not been helpful. Diabetes and homelessness is an especially dangerous mix.
My first response was that he needed to be in the hospital. I wanted to call 911, but he refused. He said he had already been in the hospital for four months, and I suspect the doctors had talked about amputating his wounded leg, his last leg. I also suspect he had run away against medical advice.
He spoke of nobody caring even though he had served this country. There was anger in his voice when he did. But when he showed the wound on his leg he spoke only of his diabetes, with no words linking it to his service. He did not speak of his amputated leg until after he said he was diabetic. He recounted his time in the hospital in days, not months, and clearly did not wish to submit himself to anymore. He showed us his cell phone to prove that he could call 911 for himself if he wanted to. He even affirmed that he had battery life left. He was agitated but gave me the impression that he wasn’t misrepresenting anything. He was methodical about the reality of his situation, citing the fare for the bus and the fare for the ferry separately in itemized fashion. He did not directly ask for all of the money. He just told us about the two fares and what he was trying to do. He was loud and clear about needing help. I took this as a request for the full amount.
My boyfriend gave him more than the cost of the fares. He called 911 after that. I was crying at the time, so it was clear who should call. We had started walking onward to our gathering again, but conscience pulled us back. It was not that we felt we had failed the man by doing precisely what he hoped for. It was simply that we had to know if calling 911 might possibly result in someone speaking to him about what had to be done, even just a little bit sooner than we knew his mom probably would. The man was moving toward the buses by the time we made the call. We saw him pass as we ducked into a stairway to do so. We had been on the fence about whether it was even right to call 911. It didn’t feel right to call; it also didn’t right not to. We needed to reach out to somebody. We figured that the operator would clarify things for us.
The 911 operator, and then the fire department operator we were transferred to, said there was nothing they could do for the man. It was not within the law to pursue someone who did not want help and was not an active danger to himself or others. He was not actively mutilating himself or threatening others. We were told that we would have to put him on the phone and have him agree to receive the help. The tone of the conversation was that we needed to let this go. We didn’t run after the man. We didn’t try to persuade him to stay with us and wait for an ambulance.
I didn’t ask my vet his name. I don’t know his history. I don’t know whether he had been homeless over a long term or if he had found himself without shelter only after leaving the hospital. I probably won’t ever know if he made it to his mom.
I know it is likely that his life was in danger. I know that even if he made it to his mom, and even if his mom convinced him to go back to the hospital, his life may still be in danger now. This was a vivid lesson about what we can and cannot do for others. I hate to think what may have happened if we, or someone else hadn’t stopped and listened. I would probably never learn of the outcome either way.
I get asked for money a lot and it can be numbing. But that night reminded me that there are people really suffering out there. It is hard to know what the average citizen can really do about any of the suffering they witness, if they haven’t become entirely numb and blind already. It feels like we have to override our feelings of care for one another, or travel in despair.
The natural train of thought to fall into after an encounter such as this one seems to be over-analyze-ation. The one thing I can think that I might have done differently would have been to refer the man to a Veteran Crisis Line. It seems so obvious now. He was a veteran in crisis and 911 was an imperfect option in his case. Reaching out to the wider wealth of support services that exist may be one of the best things that can be done to alleviate suffering.
Author, Gayle Tice
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