Being homeless and addicted can be described as living from chaos to trauma. Not every homeless person is an addict, and not every addict is homeless. But sometimes they intersect. And the two together multiply the pain.
We forget or try to ignore the obvious reality: Every homeless person, and every addict, had a life before addiction. Some might be our former friends or neighbors. Tacoma is a small town in every way — perhaps especially among those on the street.
Even with my long-time presence in Tacoma and my work with the homeless, I find myself not always willing to look them in the face as I see them or walk by.
But I do occasionally see a familiar face.
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As much as I —– out of busyness, denial or just plain distraction — keep moving and ignore the bare humanity in front of me, sometimes I just can’t look past the obvious. And sometimes that obviousness strikes far closer to home than I would like.
We all imagine, or hope, that homelessness and addiction happens to “other” people — those who “deserve” a life of continual humiliation and desperation, who have somehow “earned” a life on the margins of our city and live among garbage and torn tarps.
We tell ourselves that it is their problem, and even if we have a shred of empathy, we keep our distance and want them to keep theirs.
But many homeless people and addicts are not from far away, nor from dysfunctional families. They are people we used to, or could in the future, know and work with.
One of them is the daughter of a friend of mine. She’s been a heroin addict and living under a pale blue tarp for a couple of years now. She just turned 24.
She was in the hospital recently. She had nearly died from an infection.
I have known this young woman since before she was born. When I saw her recently, I was struck by how old and hardened she looked. Yes, I easily recognized her childhood face. And she recognized me.
But we had little to say to each other.
Other people have told me what to say to her at this moment: details about rehab programs. That seems to be what everyone wants to tell addicts. I don’t know why. There are many programs, public and private. Everyone on the street knows about rehab programs.
But I was never convinced that was what addicts needed anyway. They certainly need to stop using drugs and get off the streets. But that will never be the first step. The first step is to find a place, a community, where they are welcome and belong.
In other words, they need what we all need. They just happen to have an addictive drug complicating things.
As I saw this young woman in the high-security room in the hospital, I was struck by her eyes — a lostness and a sense of being adrift that I recognized from her childhood.
A friend of hers from high school told me that she “fell in with the wrong crowd.” Yes, she did. But falling into things is what she always did.
She was always a good kid. She did what others wanted her to do. She just happened to run into friends who wanted her to use heroin.
Her eyes showed me that she was still falling.
When I saw her, I had a million intrusive and guilt-inducing questions. I’m sure she gets those all the time.
All I wanted to say to her was that, in spite of what her friends might tell her, and what she might tell herself, she still belongs and has family and friends waiting for her to come home.
And I know that every homeless person and addict needs to hear this.
Every addict has a family; every homeless person has a history. We need to remind them and welcome them back. They are not aliens, they belong to us, and we to them.
We need them at least as much as they need us.
M. (Morf) Morford, a former News Tribune reader columnist, is chairman of the North End Neighborhood Council. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.