Earlier today I drove past “Alan.” I was heading south on Main Street; he was sitting on a wall near the sidewalk. I took note partly because I hadn’t seen him for a while, but mostly because I had seen him in the same place wearing the same clothes yesterday afternoon.
Maybe the season’s end of Waterfront Concerts had something to do with this haven’t seen/reappear deal. Alan’s pretty anti-social, and he’s tall. I’m thinking he’s probably been down by the river, a little further south, in the vicinity of the “love shack.” It’s an area that has been the temporary home of several people I’ve known a little, especially during summer months. It’s also been the location of multiple, violent incidents, some of which have been made public.
So I saw Alan twice in less than 24 hours, sitting on the same bench, and hadn’t seen him for some time before this. My can’t-make-it-stop-often-enough mind wondered how visible or invisible Alan might be to other drivers passing by. And pretty soon I had two channels of thought running: How invisible may people who are homeless become to people who may be “seeing” them frequently as they try not to? And how broken down is Alan at this point after years of depression and anger and alcohol abuse? I wondered just how solidly he’d gotten himself into self-imposed pseudo exile, and was there any chance left for him to have a better quality of life, and has he lost responsible decision making… And how do you find a reason to live when you’re an outcast, a drunk, a recipient of derision and scorn, someone without any family, without a home, without faith? I’m glad I don’t have to figure that out…
Thoughts of diminishing returns strike me in two ways when it comes to the Alans of the world. If I’m right, and Alan has gotten progressively more angry and depressed and organically broken down in a later stage of active alcoholism, then a “regular” dose of intervention and support won’t have much of a chance of affecting him. Similarly but much worse due to scale and the numbers of people involved, is it possible that the longer a homeless shelter remains a part of the local landscape, an increasing number of people cease to really see it? That repetitive and generally unchanging views diminish the actual perception of the shelter and what it does? We’ve had between 35 and 45 “emergency” homeless shelters in Maine for the past 35 years or so—has their existence unintentionally diminished their visual impact?
Alan’s a tough subject for compassion to be easily stimulated. He’s not a warm and fuzzy human being. He is indefinitely barred from our shelter for years of bad behavior and an unwillingness or inability to work to change. Before things got to this point, on more than one occasion he declined olive branches and various offers for support. So where are we headed? How will Alan’s journey end? What’s to follow decades of current practices and gifts of community compassion and a fragile mission that cannot be everything to everyone? I hope our presence is not diminished because we’ve been here since 86 because it’s going to take a bunch of us to do a better job than we are now.