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Undercover with the homeless

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This is an opinion piece written by Idaho State Senator Mark Nye, D-Pocatello. It earlier appeared in the Idaho State Journal at Pocatello.

I had been campaigning for re-election to the Idaho Senate, getting out to learn about our needs. What I found was shocking.

It started when I stopped by the community action center. I’d helped get this going in the 1960s — with the help of Idaho Purce, Perry Swisher and others. It was nice to come back, and happened to meet the head of veteran’s programs in the hall. I ask him about his priorities for Pocatello.

He said, “Priorities? Are you kidding? I need 12 beds for homeless vets tonight! We don’t have them. No one else in town has room. Priorities? Excuse me, I’m really busy right now…” and then he left.

This was a blunt wake-up call. We hear about how bad things are, but being there and seeing it is different. This was for real. I decided to find out more.

I learned where the homeless can get a hot meal. One place is a hall near Poky High. I saw poor people lined up there waiting for the doors to open. I watched and wondered where they came from and how this could be happening in our city. I volunteered to wash dishes and watch. I did this for a couple of weeks, but this wasn’t enough.

Sixty-eight people were needing a meal and there were some children. One women was tall, with stringy hair, wild eyes and skinny like a stick. Her clothes were a mess and she wasn’t the only one like this. It was cold outside and some had coats — ratty coats. Some had no coats.

All of a sudden these people were not statistics. Idaho’s poverty numbers indicate that perhaps 20 percent of our population are under the poverty level. This didn’t matter. These people weren’t numbers; they were real.

We all have a natural sympathy for those in need, and I began to wonder what it would be like. I decided to go incognito and find out.

The next week, I put on my old Levi’s, a black T-shirt and old baseball cap and drove down to the place. I hid my car blocks away and went to the front door early to wait. About 18 people were already there. They were standing around, some on the stairs, some on the curb, some alone and in small groups. There was little talk. I was afraid what they might do to me if I was recognized.

But I had learned the walk. The walk was a slow shuffle, with head bent down and no eye contact. We waited for the door to open. I felt conspicuous but no one was watching. I was just another one standing there. Not noticed, not acknowledged, just here.

The door opened, and we went in. It was warm inside. We all just went to where the food was. It was served on plastic trays like in school. I had some, but was there to quietly watch and listen. The thought crossed my mind that as a senator I represent them, too.

I sat next to six to eight others at a long table. No one said much. I’ll never forget the four little children. They were dirty and a little disheveled but were just like other kids playing and having fun. But I couldn’t look up. I didn’t dare make eye contact and kept my baseball cap pulled down low. But being there was eye opening.

Each had a quiet dignity and was there for different reasons. As they left, I learned that it wasn’t just about the food. For them it was also being together. We shuffled and walked the walk outside together.

For a brief moment, I had been one of them. I came away feeling we can and must do better. We are from Pocatello, and I know we can and that we will.
 

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