Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying to Doctor Watson that someone had “vanished without a trace.” This phrase came to me about a week ago as I was walking my usual early morning route in my neighborhood. That route takes me to a Mall that extends for about five blocks and is where a yearly art fair usually installs white tents inside which artists set up and hawk their creative wares in August. Of course that event was cancelled this year because of the pandemic. Instead, in late spring, one morning I noted four or five tents set up and knew instantly that they belonged to homeless people. Within days, our park board had installed a Portapotty so people had a place to eliminate., Within a week or so, those initial tents grew into more than twenty, spread all down the narrow grassy area across from the Mall proper. My walk had always included going up one side road to the “U” at the top of the area and then down on the other side that ran alongside several old brick apartment buildings. As the homeless encampment grew, I shortened my walk and took it on the grassy Mall area, though I never felt in any danger. Usually I was there before any of the tent dwellers was awake; if someone was already out in front of their quarters, we spoke but did not have conversations.
As the size of the settlement increased, I noted that many were not living in “tents,” but had thrown together several large plastic sheets, often full of rips and holes, secured loosely to stakes or poles. Some of these structures sagged on a good day and, in early October when we had a very unexpected heavy wet snow event, collapsed into themselves from the sheer weight of wet stuff. That morning and for several more until sun melted the snow and dried the plastic sheeting, I wondered how those inside were managing since I felt pretty sure nothing so thrown together could be water-proof. Since I walked past the encampment five mornings a week, I noted the changing nature of each “tent” and had a range of feelings. The longer each person or couple stayed there, the more odds and ends began to be outside the pretend sleeping/living area. One spot had set up a dead chrysanthemum clearly retrieved from someone’s alley where it had been taken because it was no longer “fit” to adorn a front porch or patio. Several sites came to include grocery store push carts full of clothes or papers or more pieces of plastic, perhaps waiting to be used when other strips played out.. Initially I thought how “messy” the various sites were becoming, wondering why anyone would retrieve a dead flower and carry it blocks to be put outside the flimsiest of shelters. That privileged reaction morphed into one perhaps closer to reality: I began to feel that if I were homeless and forced to try and make shelter outside, then middle-class ideas of “neatness” couldn’t be applied. to me To such a person, a faded yellow plant might raise their frayed spirits more than I could possibly comprehend. So I began to let go of my judgmental reactions and just be glad the person or people inside that particular flimsy place had found anything to give color or life to their tiny bit of grassland that is all my super wealthy neighbor could offer or allow them.
As fall extended itself, I began to wonder when the city would ask or force these homeless individuals–mostly black–to “vacate the premises,” another often-used phrase when facing the realities of homelessness in this country. At first, I noticed that the man who lived at the end of the string of plastic houses was out one morning burning trash in front of his dwelling. Next morning, he was gone, though lots of bits and pieces of his life accumulated over about three months were visible in the grass. I wondered where he might have gone and hoped that perhaps some agency had found him better accommodations even as I suspected that were not the case. In the course of the next week or so, about a third of those living between him and the original group of tents cleared out as well and I kept wondering where they might be on a given early morning as I walked by the mostly empty space where they’d made the best places to “live” as they could. Then, after noting one morning that there were now only about seven or eight remaining tents, I came to the Mall, looked to my left to see how things were going, and found not a single sign that anyone had ever been there. Not only were the actuall people gone but the park board had gotten trash trucks to scoop up every shard of their belonging. Every large black or blue trash bin had been emptied, tidied on the outside, and replaced where it had “belonged” before the encampment happened. Anyone who had not seen this make-shift community as I had done would have no idea it had ever existed. To them, indeed, the women and men who had lived there had “vanished without a trace.” But I had seen them, morning after morning, for about eight months. They came to be part of my day in a strange and disconnected way. And now, when I walk further up the green meridian and look at bare ground where they slept and ate and talked and maybe even made love or argued or hurt each other, questions linger: Why didn’t I give them money or bring an old blanket as air got colder or leave food from the nearby grocery store where I shop often? Why didn’t I ever say more than “Hello” or “Good morning” to someone just up from their hard “bed”? And, most important of all, “Where are they now?”
Their “trace” is in my memory, nagging at me every time I walk past the Mall, haunting me until I find an action I can engage in that may help some other homeless person trying to make a life out of whatever fragments s/he can salvage from the largesse all around them.