I was maybe 11 when my father brought Archie home to live with us for a bit. Archie was ruddy and a little loud, but gentle and gracious, especially at dinner.
Archie had no job or home. For who knows how many reasons, he could not reconcile his memories of Vietnam with the reality of a life forever changed by war, and the dissonance revealed itself in unpredictable ways.
I am reminded of Archie as I confirm the now weekly evidence of one or more people taking shelter overnight behind the building where I work. Behind a wooden fence, tucked between HVAC units, there are blankets, sweatshirts and towels, travel-sized tubes of toothpaste, cigarette butts, empty water bottles and worse. There is both order and chaos to it.
Sleeping things seem to go here, toiletries over there; but everything is tossed and partially buried by leaves and flattened cardboard boxes.
Stepping through the gate, I am an intruder to someone’s make-shift home.
I notice how loud it is. And hot. But there is a hose nearby, there is shade from a few giant old pine trees, and the fence and adjacent rose bushes provide cover from the street. I could walk downtown in 10 minutes, find something to eat or catch a ride. I think about what would have to change in my life to put me here — everything a person might have lost or never known that leads to this — and how much worse it could be.
I also have to consider the risk to personnel and property from an errant cigarette, or an errant mind. The same trees that provide shade also cover the ground with pine needles, now tinder-dry. The building is busy with students and staff coming and going, sometimes after hours. How many of them would be surprised to find someone living so near? Or frightened?
I think about health and hygiene; the law and keeping up appearances; staying safe and creating peace of mind for the people for whom I am responsible.
But in my experience that includes Archie.