Sunday, October 17, 2021
Oct. 17, 2021

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Donnelly: Couple goes extra mile for homeless man


In July, a Vancouver couple encountered a homeless man in distress and resolved to help him. Taking him into their car, they spent hours seeking housing for him, encountering one barrier after another. Finally, heartbroken to have to admit defeat, they wrote a detailed description of their unique quest.

The resulting account, entitled “The Day that Changed Our View of the Homeless” admirably blames no one. It is rich in facts useful for improving our programs for the homeless.

The couple own a business in downtown Vancouver and live in the Heights. We’ll call them the Smiths, as they request to remain anonymous. On a weekday evening, turning west onto MacArthur Boulevard, they encountered a homeless man on the ground, a walker and his belongings nearby.

Mrs. Smith insisted they turn around to help. Two women already bending over him were on foot and gave way to the Smiths, who had a car. They lifted Joe — as we’ll call him to respect his privacy — into the car along with the walker he used for mobility on the streets, and the three backpacks that evidently constituted his worldly belongings.

Thus began an experience that changed the Smiths’ minds about the homeless. Joe was frail, old, evidently with a bit of dementia or mental confusion, but (the Smiths assert) “a kind person,” apologetic for being so much trouble. No evidence of drugs or alcohol. Not what they expected.

Homeless individuals are not always able to follow the rules. Joe explained that he had just been evicted from an adult assisted living residency for visiting his friend in Portland after being told he could not return if he did. COVID rules, mental confusion and need for human contact took over, and the combination left him homeless, sleeping in the woods. The adult facility confirmed to the Smiths that Joe could not return there.

The Smiths noticed Joe wore a hospital bracelet. They learned that a seizure had taken him to PeaceHealth twice recently. Each time, the hospital discharged him and gave him a bus pass to downtown Vancouver, useless to a frail man using a walker.

The Smiths persevered, driving to the hospital. PeaceHealth referred them to facilities listed by the Council for the Homeless. Most didn’t answer or were closed. Staff at the Council for the Homeless were helpful but could not provide an immediate solution.

The police recommended the Smiths call 911. The 911 operator asked why they would take a homeless man into their car.

Joe revealed he was not a veteran, thus not qualified for community veteran programs.

Having exhausted all options, and with darkness approaching, the Smiths fed Joe at Burgerville, then dropped him at his accustomed homeless site near Clark College. They watched him trudge into the woods leaning over his walker.

The couple wrote that their “hearts were broken as we walked away … Joe went to bed that evening with no hope, no security, no medicine, and lonely.”

Explaining why they desire anonymity, they state that “the real story was Joe.” They remain committed to doing something.

Joe changed the Smiths’ views of the homeless.

“We have been critical of the homeless problem in Portland and Vancouver. Now, we have a new, sympathetic view. Homeless old people like Joe are not even talked about.”

Joe’s story can make a difference to Vancouver’s expanding programs and facilities for the homeless. His case fell through the cracks. So will others. We have to work to close up those cracks, realizing there is no silver bullet.

There is no substitute for the love and compassion of individuals like the Smiths.