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Failing where it matters the most

by Dr. Eric Heidenreich
| May 2, 2020 1:00 AM

“I can’t stay sober living on the streets, Dr. H. I’ve tried and failed so many times!”

The burly man with weathered skin couldn’t look me in the eyes as he uttered the words while wiping away tears.

“Why did they shut down the tent city?”

I couldn’t bear to tell him the truth. In fact, I suspected I hadn’t been told the truth. At least not the whole truth.

“The camp didn’t meet the CDC guidelines,” was the official line delivered by the representative of Panhandle Health. This despite the fact that this same agency, in conjunction with Heritage Health, the Salvation Army, faith-based organizations, and many others, had devised the potential lifesaving plan in the first place.

It should also be noted the CDC has stated the very lack of housing contributes to poor health outcomes. Without first-hand knowledge of what all had changed, I could only surmise the Panhandle Health representative was acting primarily as the messenger of a more influential person or entity. Considering the emergent conditions under which it was devised, the plan was well conceived and comprehensive.

The temporary tent city was to have clean bathing facilities, socially spaced tents for shelter, three nutritious meals a day, and periodic police presence. For the first time in years, my patient was hopeful. He was battling to stay off mind-altering drugs and attempting to heed caregiver advice to remain integrated in treatment and connected to the community.

The structure and support the camp was meant to provide would give him the chance to look for work while remaining engaged in treatment. It wasn’t to be. Some faction of community governance insisted the camp must shut down. When the lights of the camp went out, that fleeting glimmer of hope my client had experienced was extinguished along with it.

One of Mahatma Gandhi’s most famous quotes is, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable.” Consideration of this quote alongside another often repeated axiom that “character is revealed when pressure is applied,” affords our community a unique opportunity to measure our character.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly added pressure and stress to already challenging times. Based on Gandhi’s standard, how do we, the greater Coeur d’Alene Community, measure up? If one considers our treatment of our vulnerable homeless population, I’m quite sure Mr. Gandhi would give us a failing grade. Few of our local advocates, those with boots on the ground, wouldn’t argue with this assessment.

That social services for the homeless and vulnerable of North Idaho are extraordinarily limited is not news. What is newsworthy is the tremendous strain the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on our area’s already flimsy safety network.

What limited shelters that had existed have been closed or had their services severely curtailed. The Union Gospel Mission has, for the moment, essentially stopped accepting new clients. Support centers are shuttered. Libraries and other public spaces that formerly served many as temporary ports in the storm are now closed and unavailable.

The list goes on and on. For the homeless, many of whom also suffer from addictions, these are truly desperate times.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Right? For a brief moment, it appeared that at least one such measure might come to fruition in our beautiful city.

For a multitude of humane and compassionate reasons, a dedicated group of local organizations and individuals banded together to develop a blueprint for temporary tent city. Unfortunately the plan was scuttled shortly after it was implemented.

Undoubtedly there were valid concerns about potential problems such an encampment could cause in the community. In addition to the stated contagion concerns, one has to wonder if the camp’s design may have been in conflict with city codes or zoning. And, of course, there had to be the expected “not in my neighborhood” protests.

What is also true is there are consequences of doing nothing — cruel and life-threatening consequences, in this instance. Disappearing along with this community encampment effort were all of its intended objectives. Those objectives remain unmet.

It may be tempting to wonder why these unfortunate homeless people don’t simply pick up and go away to a place with more services. Resist this temptation to seize on such a simplistic and convenient solution. The reasons our homeless citizens remain are many, and they are real.

The simple fact of the matter is all creatures, great and small, are naturally inclined to avoid pain. If a less painful opportunity existed for the homeless and vulnerable than staying put, rest assured, they would take it. For some, leaving the area would mean abandoning young children. For others it would mean leaving the only friend, counselor, or pastor who has ever shown them compassion. Another group of people would violate probation.

Some would forfeit access to life-saving medications if they left town. In short, many homeless individuals either can’t leave the area or doing so would be even riskier than sheltering in place (in shelters that don’t exist).

We as a community can do better for our most vulnerable. We need to do better. Please help shine a light on the plight of the homeless population.

Call or write your local and state representatives. Communicate your thoughts to your local newspaper editor. Donate to community agencies that help the homeless and the addicted (i.e. The Salvation Army, Heritage Health, St. Vincent de Paul, your local chemical dependency treatment providers).

Mr. Scrooge, of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” asked of his tormenting spirit, determined to show Scrooge the suffering he hoped to ignore: “Have they no refuge or resource? Are there no workhouses?” We must be more informed and compassionate than Mr. Scrooge. And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, regarding emergency refuge resources in the North Idaho panhandle, the answer is no. Practically speaking, there are none.

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Eric Heidenreich, MD, is a longtime North Idaho resident. Dr. Heidenreich works with individuals struggling with chemical dependency and mental illness.