I remember my friend Gary. He was a welder by trade but a junkie through habit, a good guy whose addictions kept getting the better of him.
He’d work for a while, but inevitably the big ache would overwhelm him and down the spiral hole into Hell he’d go. The pinprick gave him comfort but it also removed him from life.
One thing would lead into another and Gary would soon find himself homeless.
I took Gary into my home during a time when he was trying to exorcize the demon of his addiction.
What started as an invitation to stay for a couple weeks extended itself to a couple months. Things began well but little by little, starting with a few frustrations fraying at the edges, Gary began to deteriorate until the man that I had invited into my home became someone we could no longer tolerate around our then-young sons.
We moved Gary and his few remaining possessions into an apartment that he proceeded to lose within a few weeks. Not only did he lose his shelter but on this occasion he lost his five family pictures that he had always kept with him through all the ups and downs of his life.
He cried and cried. He cursed God. He was beside himself with grief and a longing that, just for once, couldn’t life turn out better?
I think of Gary when I think of the periodic sweeps that occur in our city. In the sweeps, a person’s house is destroyed, their possessions tossed or collected up as litter, perhaps stored for a time, and then recycled into the biosphere.
From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.
The sweeps are a death ritual, a foretaste of the Grim Reaper whose sickle is always poised above the heads of the poor of our society.
Homeless people die several deaths before their actual last breath. The sweeps are a death ritual, a foretaste of the Grim Reaper whose sickle is always poised above the heads of the poor of our society.
The sweeps are the frantic funeral preparations for those whom we know are about to die, and for whom we know not how to heal.
The sweeps are a great sadness.
As a society we can earmark some $50 million for “the homeless” but somehow Gary isn’t important enough to be targeted as a recipient of a life reconstruction grant. I know it’s more complicated than that. I know that Gary had a life before losing. I know about his battered childhood, the dysfunctional family, the drinking and violence of his culture.
I know that school didn’t reach him, and, as almost all little boys, his culture hardened him.
I know his life hasn’t been fair. But despite this he was still a good guy. And that’s what gets lost in the sweeps. Our connection to Gary gets lost like pictures that fade with time. And without our connection, who really are we?
Rev. Rich Lang is the district superintendent of the United Methodist Church in King County. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previous Faith, Culture & Politics columns by Lang.
Special Report: Understanding sweeps
Why Sweep? The swirling logic behind Seattle’s mass evictions of unauthorized camps
Rough count: How the city has counted the sweeps has changed over the years
What does a sweep cost, anyway? The ongoing cleanups of unsanctioned encampments have been a keystone campaign issue, yet no one seems to know how much they cost or what they achieve
An unending cycle: While the city wrangles over policy, homeless people are trying to survive
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full November 8 issue.