Bangor recently lost one of its residents in a pedestrian traffic accident. The tragedy received media coverage that touched on the deceased man’s life circumstances, complete with photos of the accident scene and of a happier event this man was involved with just a few years ago. His life and death have prompted me and many others I know to step back and reflect.
I knew this man through encounters in a number of settings around Bangor over the years. More recently, I — like many of us, I suspect — frequently drove by him as he sat in the downtown area with a grocery cart carrying his possessions. I suspected he was homeless and probably had few, if any, options when it came to where he slept or spent his waking hours.
I drove by and never stopped. Sometimes, I would drive by with my family in the car, and upon seeing him, a conversation would occur about a wide variety of topics related to social justice, charity, ideology and the human condition. We never stopped.
I was very sad when I learned of this man’s death but was not at all surprised. I know many others had a similar reaction. My lack of surprise at the sad conclusion to this man’s time on earth has to do with familiarity gained from working with folks on the margin for almost 40 years.
If I am totally honest with myself, I knew this man would most likely die a tragic death. What is eating at me is the fact that if I passed a person on the street who was in some sort of medical distress, I would have stopped, called for emergency personnel, done what I could in the interim and left once the EMTs arrived. If it were a child at risk, again I would have called the authorities and waited until they arrived. I have done both over the years. But in this case, when the man wasn’t in immediate distress, I did nothing, even though my years in this work alerted me to the real risks present.
What did the other hundreds or thousands of people who walked or drove by this man everyday think as they encountered this man? What did the compassionate restaurant folks, who, according to media accounts, provided this man with a warm meal think? What did those people working at other businesses in the area think? What was the approach by local authorities and agencies looking to address people in these circumstances?
How would their response have changed if there were many more people like this man occupying the benches and looking for food with, apparently, no other place to go in the downtown area or anywhere else in the city? How would I have felt if I’d found out that many in our community had, in fact, tried to help this person but ultimately could not find a way to offer support he would accept?
As I shared this story in an act of confession with my children, who are scattered across this country, one of them asked what I could or should have done differently and how could that have possibly changed this unfortunate outcome?
Great question! I thought about it, and the best I could come up with was this: I could have stopped on a recent warm day and offered him a cold bottle of water. I could have spoken to him by name and asked how he was doing. I could have called the authorities and advocated for him — insist that he be offered assistance and wait with him until someone showed up. I did none of these things.
I decided, maybe in a feeble attempt to somehow ease my personal sense of guilt, to write this OpEd and to talk about this man’s life and death in the places I travel — at homeless council meetings, at meetings with faith leaders, with mental health groups, with disability groups, with my elected representatives and with my own family. I hope others might do the same.
Shawn Yardley is a member of Maine’s Statewide Homeless Council, a board member of NAMI-Maine, an advisory board member of Unlimited Solutions Clubhouse in Bangor and a consultant at Food AND Medicine in Brewer. He is a former director of Health and Community Services for the city of Bangor.