There were three shootings in a 25-hour period in Seattle this week. The third shooting occurred during rush hour. Multiple fire trucks raced past the lines of cars in the downtown grid; I remember thinking, “It must be a big fire.”
The newspaper later reported that the person who died in the third shooting was a woman who was previously homeless, but now had lived for nearly ten years in permanent housing. Based on her history of homelessness alone and the location of the shooting, some people might assume that she made an active choice to be there, that it was somehow her fault that she was shot. Would those people also assume that the others who were shot—including the nine year-old boy—made an active choice to be there, that they are to blame for getting shot?
There is now a vacancy in that apartment, and people will miss her.
Two days prior, I went to a homeless shelter with hopes of talking with a patient. He wasn’t there—maybe he was trying to avoid me; maybe he forgot; maybe he had more important things to do—but there was a makeshift memorial in the lobby.
As I made my way to the memorial, a man with fresh scabs all over his face and pants too big for his legs walked past. A woman with grey hair leaned forward and used her skinny legs to roll backwards in her wheelchair.
On the folding table was a grayscale image of a man’s face printed on a standard sheet of paper. The image was blurry due to the low resolution, but his smile was bright and clear. Next to this image was a large sheet of white butcher paper, along with some pens.
Several dozen people—other people staying in the shelter—had written messages on the butcher paper:
You went too soon, man.
I miss you and hope to see you again in heaven.
I hope it’s better where you are now.
Another person had already taken the bed that this deceased man previously occupied.
She was trying not to cry.
“It’s completely normal to feel sad when one of our [patients] die,” I said. “You were connected to him.”
A small laugh came out of her mouth, and then the tears fell from her eyes.
He wasn’t an old man, but he wasn’t a spring chicken, either. He didn’t like to stay in the shelters; sometimes other men would call him names or make fun of the way he talked. He slept under a bridge, though came into the clinic several times a week. He and I had only met once; he was courteous, made small jokes, and called me “ma’am”. I wished that he would stop smoking methamphetamine. He wished for that, too.
She, his case manager, was hopeful. They talked about his health; they worked on applications to help him get into housing so he didn’t have to stay in a shelter or sleep outside; they talked about how methamphetamine was getting in the way of what he wanted.
“I wasn’t prepared for this sense of loss,” she said, wiping her face. “We talked about his plans. I was hopeful that things would change for him.”
A few weeks prior, he was sitting across from me in that office. She and I now sat there, our sadness filling the room.
I have a friend, also a psychiatrist, who works in a prison. She has commented that these individuals—people living on the streets, people in jails and prisons, people who are part of marginalized and excluded populations—are considered “throwaways”, that people don’t think about them, that they are the forgotten ones.
We only forget about them if we forget that they’re people, just like us.