“Dawn Whitson, a shelter resident making $12 an hour as a hotel receptionist, said she wanted to know why the city was spending potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the suit instead of putting the money toward more shelter beds or homeless services.”
How Far Can Cities Go to Police the Homeless? Boise Tests the Limit
A decade-old legal fight shapes a mayoral race and offers the Supreme Court a chance to weigh in.
BOISE, Idaho — During a recent mayoral debate at a Boise homeless shelter, after disposing of icebreakers like the candidates’ favorite Metallica album, the moderator turned to something more contentious: a decade-old lawsuit, now a step away from the Supreme Court. The case, Boise v. Martin, is examining whether it’s a crime for someone to sleep outside when they have nowhere else to go.
The suit arose when a half-dozen homeless people claimed that local rules prohibiting camping on public property violated the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The plaintiffs prevailed at the appellate level last year, putting the city at the center of a national debate on how to tackle homelessness. Now Boise — after hiring a powerhouse legal team that includes Theodore B. Olson and Theane Evangelis of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher — has asked the Supreme Court to take the case, a decision that could come within days.
Nobody at Interfaith Sanctuary, a shelter for 164 with bunk beds in neat rows, needed a primer. They had been talking about it for weeks. Before the debate, Dawn Whitson, a shelter resident making $12 an hour as a hotel receptionist, said she wanted to know why the city was spending potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the suit instead of putting the money toward more shelter beds or homeless services.
In the course of the one-hour event organized by the shelter, the two candidates, competing in a runoff election on Tuesday, heard plenty more about the issue. One person said there was a misconception that all homeless people are drug addicts. A veteran said he had $771 left over from his disability check each month but couldn’t find a room for less than $500, and asked what he was supposed to do.
Even before the answers, everyone knew who the room was for. Lauren McLean, the City Council president and top vote-getter in an inconclusive November election, opposes the city’s quest for leeway in policing the homeless. She says the solution should come from tackling poverty.
“Each of us, no matter our situation, has to sleep,” she said. “We need more beds. We need to create homes for our residents.”
Her opponent, Mayor David Bieter, seeking his fifth term, was unapologetic about fighting the lawsuit, despite the shelter crowd. Echoing the position of various Western cities that support Boise’s stand, Mr. Bieter argued that the ability to issue citations for sleeping outside is a little-used but necessary tool to keep homelessness in check.
“I’m really concerned when I see Seattle or Portland or San Francisco,” he said. “I go there and I see a city that’s overwhelmed by the problem, and people tell me all the time, ‘Don’t allow us to be like those other cities.’”
On the surface, Boise, a city of about 230,000 whose modest downtown does little to obscure the mountain views, is an odd point of origin for such a debate. Its annual homeless counthas found about 50 to 100 unsheltered people for the past seven years. A drive around town turned up a handful of people sleeping outside, a far cry from the blocklong tent cities in California.
But the city’s decision to appeal Boise v. Martin has elevated homelessness to a focus of an increasingly ugly campaign. Third-party mailers have put Ms. McLean’s picture next to a homeless encampment with the words, “Lauren McLean’s Future Boise.” She recently posted on Facebook that someone in a pickup truck was putting tents and sleeping bags next to “McLean for Boise” yard signs.
The city’s relatively modest homeless problem is cited by both candidates to bolster their positions. Each is essentially campaigning on the idea that rapid growth needn’t produce streets of destitution as it has in California — but the two diverge on the role that law enforcement should play.
To Mr. Bieter, the homeless crises in Los Angeles and San Francisco prove that the city’s power to issue citations and shoo sleeping people off sidewalks is needed to prevent larger camps from forming.
Ms. McLean calls for a different approach. “I think other cities got to the point where it was too late,” she said in an interview. “So let’s say right now we’re actually going to get to work to prevent homelessness instead of hanging our hat on getting the right to ticket people.”
The road to the Supreme Court’s doorstep began in the office of Howard Belodoff, a Boise civil rights lawyer. In 2009, after a local shelter closed, Mr. Belodoff filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of six homeless men and women who had been cited for violating city ordinances that prohibit sleeping on public property. Most of the plaintiffs were prosecuted and pleaded guilty, with the exception of Robert Martin, whose case was dismissed.
Mr. Martin and the other plaintiffs subsequently filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s ordinances. The case was litigated for several years before being appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Last year, in a decision that reverberated across the West Coast, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to cite someone for sleeping outdoors if there wasn’t any shelter available.
In August, Boise formally asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. While the Ninth Circuit has described its decision as “narrow,” the city’s petition portrays it as anything but, using words like “vast,” “far-reaching” and “catastrophic” to depict a picture of mass confusion and lawlessness arising from the court’s ruling. The filing goes on to say that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling could also imperil a host of other public health laws “such as those prohibiting public defecation and urination.”
“Public encampments, now protected by the Constitution under the Ninth Circuit’s decision, have spawned crime and violence, incubated disease and created environmental hazards that threaten the lives and well-being both of those living on the streets and the public at large,” it declares.
In an interview, Ms. Evangelis, from Gibson Dunn, said: “I don’t think that fighting for someone’s right to live and die in squalor is helping.”
In response, lawyers for the plaintiffs, quoting an earlier Ninth Circuit decision, argue that the court’s ruling in the Boise case merely “reflects the ought-to-be uncontroversial principle that a person may not be charged with a crime for engaging in activity that is simply ‘a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human.’”
Dozens of cities have filed briefs backing Boise’s position, saying that they are confused as to how broadly the Ninth Circuit ruling applies and that the decision has impeded enforcement of basic health and safety laws. In some cases, the cities contend, the decision has actually made it harder to build housing meant for the homeless.
Among Boise’s allies is Los Angeles, which has passed more than $1 billion in bonds for permanent supportive housing but has found steep neighborhood resistance. Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles city attorney, said the Ninth Circuit decision raised as many questions as it answered. For instance, to determine whether or not is in compliance with the ruling, does the city have to constantly count how many beds there are and compare it to the homeless population? Can Los Angeles prohibit sleeping in sensitive locations, such as next to new homeless shelters?
“The language, rather than citing clear principles where constitutional questions are at stake, makes local jurisdictions vulnerable to lawsuits as they struggle to achieve a balance between the legitimate rights and interests of homeless people and the legitimate rights and interests of other residents and businesses,” he said.
Whatever happens in the Boise mayor’s race, Boise v. Martin is far enough along that its fate now rests with the Supreme Court: Even if she is elected mayor, Ms. McLean said, she has no plans to withdraw from the case. “The case is moving forward — that ship has sailed,” she said. “I just still maintain that we can do this without ticketing folks and moving them into the criminal justice system, which will make it harder to find shelter, home and work.”
My sense of place — I have — it’s not quite a theory, but the way I’ve been thinking about it lately as an engineer — that everything has a physical landscape, an emotional landscape, and a natural landscape. And I think the way those three things combine form our sense of place and belonging and connection. -Richard blanco
“…what happens to our imagination about these humans when we use the word “immigrant” or “refugee” or, what I’m so aware of now, is what the word “migrant” has done. I think that language makes an abstraction of people and creates an ability for us to separate.” -Krista Tippett
‘As a longtime civil engineer by day and a poet by night, Cuban American writer Richard Blanco has straddled the many ways a sense of place merges with human emotion to form the meaning of home and belonging. In 2013, he became the fifth poet to read at a presidential inauguration (he was also the youngest and the first immigrant). The thoughtfulness, elegance, and humor of Blanco’s poetry and his person captivated the crowd for this live conversation at the Chautauqua Institution.’
Richard Blanco practiced civil engineering for more than 20 years. He is now an associate professor of creative writing at his alma mater, Florida International University. His books of non-fiction and poetry include Looking for the Gulf Motel and, most recently, How to Love a Country.
“Death by suicide has teeth, and when it bites, it will not let you loose.” [Truth.]
39 minutes (7,820 words)
“We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.” —Virginia Woolf, The Waves
We had just celebrated my father’s eighty-fifth birthday. Louis Gakumba and I were driving back up to Jackson Hole. My husband Brooke texted me, “I love you. Pull over to the side of the road. Call me.” I knew it was Dan. I had been thinking of him as I was mesmerized by the immense cumulus clouds building in the west.
“Is Dan dead?”
“How?” But I already knew.
Dan had told me in April that he purchased the rope, that he was exhausted, that he couldn’t bear it anymore, “it” being life, that he saw no end or purpose to his suffering.
“I’m done, Ter.”
And I believed he was telling the truth.
“I am proud of him,” I said. Brooke was not prepared for my response; neither was I.
* * *
Dan Dixon Tempest hung himself on July 27, 2018, in the stairwell of his apartment building. He was found on his knees. The police never notified our family.
A close family friend, Darol Wagstaff, Dan’s landlord and mentor, called my father.
“John, I’m so sorry about Dan,” he said.
“What’s wrong with Dan?” my father asked.
“He hung himself this morning.”
My father had left his card on Dan’s door: “We are gathering at Callie’s house. You are welcome. Love, John.”
Dan never came.
“What is the alternative?” Dan wrote in a notebook I found after his death.
He was a philosopher who wrote his master’s thesis on Wittgenstein and the eloquence of logic and language. He also laid pipe for the family business for decades, until he moved to California with his wife, took a job in logistics, and then was laid off after the economic downturn in 2008. He had a long history of depression, which led to isolation, which led to drinking to numb the pain, which led to opioids, which led to several runs of rehab. He took a job at HawkWatch International, banding and releasing raptors in the wildlands of Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. He loved the hawks and eagles, especially the red-tails. One day in the desert, we sat on our front porch and he told me it took three men to bring in a golden eagle, how magnificent they were, the range and reach of their vision, but the red-tailed hawks were his favorite because they yielded. They seemed to understand what was happening to them, that their lives were not in danger. The birds became his passion and his metaphor, but they weren’t enough.
Not long before his death, he texted me: “I’m at my limit, sis — haven’t slept in 3 weeks . . . no sleep . . . no sleep . . . I am eroding.”
A few days passed.
“. . . to understand something is to be liberated from it”
“. . . and I can’t get pass’d bein’ liberated . . . where did I go wrong sister . . .”
My reply was this: “You haven’t gone wrong, Dan. You are a brilliant man. You just need to keep going and find your creative groove that will pull you to your destiny — This I believe.”
He sent me an image of a bound mummy on a bound horse.
‘What is the alternative?’ Dan wrote in a notebook I found after his death.
Later, Dan sent me the talk by Malcolm Gladwell on David and Goliath. He texted this quote: “As the playwright George Bernard Shaw once put it: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’”
And then this: “You can’t concentrate on doing anything if you are thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen if it doesn’t go right.’”
“I’m winding down on the whole existence thing . . . I want to be free . . .
stardust . . .”
I responded, “These are hard and lonely times. I don’t have much hope and then . . . There are these moments of beauty, a million people marching for justice, Dan. Stars in the night sky in the desert, your caring voice. I love you.”
“. . . just make sure you get me in the air . . . been buried too long . . . xoxo”
“Dan, I want to know what you know, please write. This is what I listened to this morning in my own Dark Side of the Moon: On Being — The Soul in Depression.”
“I have 2day . . . no point anymore . . . pretty much need to see things in these last days.”
“I love you.”
“. . . just put me in the air . . . all I ask . . .”
“I hope you will bury me first, Dear Heart. In the desert.”
“. . . won’t be around then Sis . . .”
“I need you to be, Dan.”
“We all do — you, me, Hank.”
“. . . Ter . . . I’m not fuckin’ around . . . mental illness is taking me out.”
“I believe you can get help, Dan. I hear you — and I am listening to what you are saying. There are medications that really can help, but you need a doctor and to take them on a schedule. You know this—”
“. . . evolve . . . I can deal with that.”
“I know you suffer — God knows, you are one of the strongest people I know, and most tender and smart. You are a beautiful soul, Dan.”
“. . . my brother said the same thing this afternoon . . .”
“Do you believe us?”
“. . . si . . .”
“I believe the three of us are evolving together — each in our own ways. Did you listen to that podcast I sent you? It’s powerful.”
“. . . agree . . . I just need a back door . . .”
“What do you mean?”
“. . . w/u and hank to deal w/it”
“Deal with what? Forgive me, I just need to understand what you are saying — a back door?”
“. . . come on . . . i’m not spelling it out.”
“. . . i don’t want to be here anymore . . . pretty simple . . . you understand that . . . i hope anyway.”
“Dan, I trust you and honor who you are and where you are. And I will forever believe in your greatness of spirit, as you continue to face and embody the vitality and courage of staying with the struggle. I understand. But it breaks my heart. I think there are roads not yet taken for you, Dan. And medication could help you return to yourself. I will just be honest, but you have to want that — and I know you are tired. But life is life. And creativity is in you to express. This I believe.”
“. . . my legacy was being addicted . . . I could never beat it . . . but I was a sensitive/intelligent soul . . .”
“You still could beat it. That is not your legacy. Your illness has been part of your addiction, but that is not your legacy. You ARE a sensitive/intelligent soul. I love you, Dan.”
“. . . ditto . . . just need to find some air for a spell . . . xxx”
“Dan, would you want to see Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo healer, this summer? He lives in Monument Valley, he’s the spiritual adviser for Bears Ears.”
“. . . sure . . .”
A few weeks pass. He sends me the song “Simple Man.”
“. . . so much right and wrong in my life . . . bipolar”
“Thank you for the music, Dan. How are you today?”
“. . . i’m ok. . . .”
“. . . good day 2day . . .”
Weeks pass, no word, and then, this:
“For the Love of God — Listen to this song, Ter”
“I love you. How are you?”
“. . . I think I have victory over dirt . . . finally . . .”
“What do you mean?”
“. . . i’ve done it all . . . nothing else to prove . . . open a new chapter . . . xxx”
* * *
He sends me a link of Kim Kardashian addressing Congress and meeting with Trump.
“. . . is this really where we’re at . . . ? . . . time to exit . . . i’m cracking the sky right now . . . luv ya . . .”
“I love you, my beautiful brother. Paint. Write. Dream. For me. Xxx T”
“. . . can you call me . . . it’s real important.”
I called Dan. He told me he had bought a rope. That he was going to go out “gently.
I said I would never let him go, nor would I ever give up on the Earth.
Please write that addicts are good people, sis. And then he said something that haunts me still: “Why can’t you see it, Ter. We’re fucked. You keep hoping things will change. I’m fucked. The planet is fucked. It’s time to exit. Face it, sis. It’s time to let me go, time to let it all go.”
There was a long pause. Neither of us spoke.
Let me go.
I said I would never let him go, nor would I ever give up on the Earth.
After our call, he texted me: “Let go. Repeat: I bought the rope, Ter. I’m going out gently. No guns. I would not do that to my brain. I will not disappear in the desert. You will not have to worry.”
I texted him again:
“Please. I will never give up on you or your joy, Dan. You are alive, a testament to your strength and will for Beauty even in suffering. I love you.”
“. . . I’m goin’ offline tomorrow for my sanity . . . knock if need be.”
A month later, May 9, 2018:
“. . . Ter . . . I’m suffering big time right now from deep loneliness . . . my question . . . ? . . . Do I reach outward to institutions or go inward to art . . .”
“Both, my dear heart, each supports the other . . . Paint, write, photograph. Seek the insight and help of an institution to steady your mind and then create out of what you are seeing, feeling, and learning once again. Please believe in your own creation born out of suffering and live. I love you, my beautiful brave brother.”
June 7, 2018:
“Tempest Family Name Meaning . . . English (Yorkshire): nickname for someone with a blustery temperament, from Middle English, Old French tempest(e) ‘storm’ (Latin tempestas ‘weather,’ ‘season,’ a derivative of tempus ‘time’).”
“It’s in our name, Sis . . . the weather is changing . . .”
The last text I received from my brother was on June 8, the same day Anthony Bourdain hung himself.
“. . . r u okay?”
I was out of range, traveling. I had been bitten a few days before by a brown recluse spider. Dad had told him. What I should have asked was “R u okay?” But I didn’t. Instead, I wrote this:
“I am okay. Skin didn’t go necrotic. Lucky. But it was scary. I see you have tried to call several times. We are in a remote place where phone service is slight. Thank you. I love you. T”
No one heard from Dan after June 8. He hung himself forty-nine days later. Who did he talk to? Where was he during those long summer days? Alone — holed up in his apartment? Downtown, mingling with the homeless? In the end, this was where he found his community, these were his peers with whom he found comfort and was comfortable. Were there moments of insight and peace, having made a decision to end his life, or was it only darkness? What do you do with all that darkness? Our brother Hank asked, “Where does darkness go?” Why that day? That moment? Where were we? He had a family. We were not there. My brother died of isolation — knock if need be.
I never did.
“Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?” David Sedaris wrote about his sister’s death by suicide.
My brother hung himself.
They found him on his knees.
I am on my knees.
I cannot breathe.
When you lose a sibling, you lose yourself.
We were a tribe of four: three boys and a girl. Steve, Dan, and Hank. I was the oldest. Steve died from lymphoma in 2005. He was forty-seven years old. Dan died by his own hand. He was fifty-six years old. Hank and I are survivors. We know our DNA is a perfect match after being tested to see if we were a match for our brother Steve, who needed a bone marrow transplant in 2004. We were not a match for our brother and could not give him our cells. We struggled then. We are struggling now. But this death is different from the others. Death by suicide has teeth, and when it bites, it will not let you loose.
A noose. My brother’s suicide is a noose around my neck and it is tightening. The questions left will never be answered.
Grief is a physical landscape where no place feels safe. It is a state of being where sorrow holds the eyes steady. I stare. I stare out the window. Hours pass without moving. I stare at people who talk to me and hear nothing they say. I stare at burning candles. I stare at the sea. I stare into darkness unable to sleep. And when I do sleep, it offers the comfort of forgetting until I wake up and pain is there to greet me. The next day, flares of anger erupt unexpectedly. When I am able to function out of necessity, showing up to work, going to the grocery store, I get ambushed: a piece of music, a sentence, a memory, a person. The tears stream down my cheeks. No one can help me. Grief is my brother, my sibling. When I embrace grief, I am embracing him. This is how I feel him near. I ache. My heart hurts. We loved each other. Grief is my companion now. Everyone and everything else is a distraction. Sometimes appreciated. Sometimes resented. People don’t know what to say. I want them to say something. Alone in an empty parking lot, I scribbled a note on a piece of paper and pinned it on my jacket that said, “My brother committed suicide — Please talk to me.” I walked in circles for more than an hour, but there was nobody there. I didn’t really want to talk. I needed someone to notice what couldn’t be seen; I wanted another chance at loving Dan better.
Grief is a physical landscape where no place feels safe.
In my private moments I believed I could help save a piece of land or save a species, a prairie dog or grizzly bear, but now I know I couldn’t even save my brother. Grief burns through the bullshit. Death by suicide. Dan warned me. I chose not to see it, I chose denial instead of action. I heard his words, but I failed to hear the pain. In the end, it’s rarely the large gestures that count, it’s the small ones. I knew my brother was suffering. I knew he was in pain. I knew he was alone. I could have knocked on his door and held him.
But I didn’t. I just kept living my life as though everything was fine.
That’s one side of the story. Here’s the other side. Dan was an alcoholic, an addict. He lied. He lied for decades. He told me stories in which, against all odds, he was always the hero, the strong one, the one who fought for justice, the one who watched, the one who outsmarted everyone and survived. He told me these stories so many times, I believed him. A mythology grew around him, part cowboy with two-toned boots worn out through hard living, part Seneca the wise, brilliant one, steeped in philosophical puzzles and truths. The six-foot- three armed outlaw and sage. On a good day, he could outwork anyone in the trenches with his strength and stamina. He read and understood the texts of Nietzsche and Husserl and Heidegger and Wittgenstein as thoughtfully as any scholar I knew, because he had lived the questions of what it means to be human and embody existential angst. I loved our conversations for all he saw that I missed. He painted wild nature and his own inner nature in bold colors and strokes. He lived in a ruthless duality like the black-and-white pastel that hangs in my study. And in moments of levity, we laughed, we laughed and gossiped and teased each other. He told me whatever story he knew would lure me in, and it did. I believed he was sober. I believed he was no longer using. I believed the red rash on his body was bed bugs, not scabies. When he asked for money, I gave it to him. And when things got bad, when he was barely bones from not eating, when he was on the streets of Salt Lake City or passed out in a motel room drunk from apricot brandy or beer, I was there to rescue him. I was always there by his side, both of us with our cowboy boots kicking up the dirt in the big moments between life and death, but rarely was I there in the small ones, the everyday moments of darkness and depression that he bore alone.
I heard his words, but I failed to hear the pain. In the end, it’s rarely the large gestures that count, it’s the small ones. I knew my brother was suffering. I knew he was in pain. I knew he was alone. I could have knocked on his door and held him.
Santa Sabina Center, California, with Terry Tempest Williams:
Do you know what I noticed the other day? The light on the speedometer is dimming…
Driving home from the protest to protect Mueller, to remind anyone who would listen that no one is above the law.
The light on the speedometer is dimming.
“Oh no.” I gently pat the dashboard.
D’s truck…’94 Ford Ranger…black…24 years old now. My son is 24.
The ‘Bitter End’ still pinned to the visor…right where you left it.
‘I walk through the world because I love it.’ -Mary Oliver
What I read walking the walls of the cloister, thinking of you.
I think you loved it.
And it broke your heart.
And it breaks mine.
Fr. Richard Rohr:
‘There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it. . . . Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life. At that moment, spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life. And it is that light that shines in darkness.’ And here’s the podcast that TTW’s brother urged her to listen to in his final days.
The Soul In Depression
We’re fluent in the languages of psychology and medication, but the word “depression” does not do justice to this human experience. Depression is also spiritual territory. It is a shadow side of human vitality and as such teaches us about vitality. And what if depression is possible for the same reason that love is possible?
‘One of my first rules of politics is: people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’
-Sean McElwee, founder of Data for Progress