(Totally off the topic of autism, inclusion, etc)
When my husband Paul and I were both fully retired, we chose to move to a condo in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. That was five years ago now, and we both agree it's one of the better decisions we've ever made - though it was definitely HIS idea, not mine, at the time.
We can walk just about everywhere we want to go, we meet so many interesting people, and feel we will stay young forever being surrounded by people who are connected to the University, the Capitol and/or the evergrowing business of hospitals, research, and technology. It's a great place to live and a great place to grow old - all the medical care we could possibly need is just a stone's throw away, and there's a beautiful long-term care facility just up the block.
Along with all these blessings come many, many lessons to be learned (AHA! - the theme of this blog!) One involves the nature of homelessness here in the heart of paradise. Everywhere we walk we see the effects of the bad economy, or bad luck, or bad choices - whatever it is that causes people to end up on the streets with no place to call home. As homeless living goes, Madison is one of the friendlier places to be. The people who work or live downtown, and all who walk the seven blocks of State Street - our local pedestrian mall that joins the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin - mingle relatively easily with those who have no home. But it does get bitterly cold in Wisconsin in the winter and the local shelters are always filled to capacity, leaving some on the streets overnight, seeking whatever shelter they can find.
I think "Fred" was one of those who slept outside but I am not really sure. I first encountered him over a year ago, standing on the sidewalk outside the convenience store just a short block from our condo. He stood out because he was overdressed for the weather, wearing several layers of clothes topped by blaze orange pants and a knit cap. Close by were two duffel bags, no doubt holding all his earthly possessions.
Slowly, the man became a part of my life - in a way. I seemed to see him everywhere I walked in the neighborhood. He was always on his feet, standing or walking, up one side of our street and down the other. Always dressed the same, always with the two duffel bags. A big man, with a bad leg, he moved very slowly and seemed to be in pain. I started to talk about my "friend," the homeless man in the neighborhood, and eventually had to make up a name for him. He became "Fred" to me and I told others about him. Only once did we speak. We happened to be sharing the same stretch of sidewalk, same side of the street and walking toward each other. It was one of the colder days last fall, and I asked him if he had a place to stay at night. He smiled and said some nights he did. I handed him the $5 bill in my pocket and wished him well. He thanked me and said he was doing OK. I tried to judge his age and guessed he was in his 30's.
Almost immediately I started to worry. Had I done the right thing? What would I do next time we see each other? Surely he would recognize me in the future? Do I fill my pockets with sandwiches or granola bars --- or $5 bills? Is there something I should be doing to find him a place to stay?
Not much changed. I continued to see him on almost a daily basis, until it became very cold outside. He had added a dark blue one-piece snowsuit, but was still immediately recognizable by his lumbering, painful gait. When I realized I hadn't seen him for some time, I became concerned - until I thought about the reality of the situation. It was COLD out, and I was staying in - of course I hadn't seen him. He was there; I was the one who was missing! As soon as it was warm enough for me to venture out again, "Fred" was there and we were both back in our routines in the neighborhood.
Three weeks ago, there was a story on the local news. A homeless man had been found dead on a park bench on the grounds of the Capitol. The cause of death was believed to be "natural causes" and the man was known to local police as a regular in the area. His name was Dwayne Warren and he was originally from Chicago.
Immediately I started obsessively searching for Fred. If I saw him just once, I would know it wasn't him. Walking was too slow, and might put me on the wrong block at the wrong time, so I drove in my car at different times throughout the day. It seemed strange to be driving on the streets I usually walked, and I had to be careful to remember that many of them are one-way streets - something you don't always think about when you're on foot.
There was a picture in the paper - but I wasn't really sure. His age was given as 38. And then the stories added details such as pain in his foot, a blue snowsuit, always a knit cap on his head, always duffel bags close by, always walking the same streets, always friendly, never wanting to be a burden to anyone.
I went to the memorial service yesterday. I learned that Fred was Dwayne, and he was born within days of my own son Doug back in 1970, dying just two weeks short of his 39th birthday. There were about 20 of us there, all with similar stories about how Dwayne had impacted our lives, all sharing our guilt because we didn't know what to do, and hadn't done enough to help.
I do believe things happen for a reason. I also believe that Fred/Dwayne is now free of his pain, and that lying down on that park bench and never waking up is about as peaceful a way to go as one could hope for. Now it's up to the rest of us to figure out how to help the next homeless person we meet, or how to change society so that people who find themselves living on the streets get the help they need.
One of the men who spoke at the service had taken Dwayne out for a burger and bought him thermal boots to get him through the winter. He broke down crying as he shared his guilt - Dwayne continued to wear those boots into the heat of summer, resulting in a serious infection in his foot. The man blamed himself for not taking the steps of finding summer shoes, or getting him the medical help he needed. We all blamed ourselves for something. No one had a clear answer for the best way to help in the future. But we all agreed Dwayne had made a significant impact on our lives that we will never forget.