Homeless Memorials


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed
     through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

      — from "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen


During the planning process for WHEEL’s Women in Black vigil for Gary Allan Funk, his mother said, "My son gave his life twice for this country." She was referring to her son’s service in Vietnam and his death, by homelessness, 35 years later.

That same day, the homeless women of WHEEL were stunned to learn that one of their members, Colette Fleming, had died unexpectedly and from unknown causes in her shelter. "I think we’re all veterans of a domestic war," said a homeless woman when she learned of these deaths.

"Seems like every month they’re falling like flies," said another, of the homeless people we’ve done memorials for so far this year; more, it feels, than during any previous year.

The Veterans of a Domestic War

Gary Allan Funk, age 57, was found dead in late January near 80th and Aurora. Evicted earlier that month from his downtown public housing unit, he died of hypothermia; it was 29 degrees out that night.

It’s possible he spent the three weeks between his eviction and death trudging all over the city; I could find no record of his having stayed in shelters or at Tent City, and he was known for walking. When his body was found he had on tattered clothes, and his shoes were held together with string.

It took the Medical Examiners nearly three months to find his next of kin — his mother, Ms. Harpin, who is in her early eighties. She lives in Edmonds and is in failing health. The body of her son was in cold storage, in the morgue, for all that time.

Though Ms. Harpin had steeled herself for the call and the return of her son’s body during the two years he served in Vietnam, his tragedy and death occurred over time, much later. A few years ago Ms. Harpin sent a letter to President Clinton, asking him to "please send my son home to me before he dies." She spent years trying to get the Veterans Administration (VA), the mental health system, anyone, to respond to his most basic needs for such simple things as medical exams.

Funk was born in San Francisco in 1944, "during the mayhem of war," his mother poetically described. He was a gifted child; a karate champ at the tender age of 18. He was athletic and artistic; he wrote plays that were produced while he was still an undergraduate at the University of Washington.

He was drafted to Vietnam, and was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for valour, but he left the service with an 80 percent disability. After the war, he was an English teacher at Ballard High School, but Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) surfaced, and he progressively deteriorated. According to his mother, "He lost his mind and his memory in Vietnam."

Although he didn’t always remember his own name — he took the name Christian Blue Rain for himself, because "blue is the color of water, and rain, and the sky, and it was Jesus’s color" — he always remembered to pay the rent; he was diligent about that. But in the last few months of his life he didn’t pay, "for a long time," according to his housing provider. He didn’t reach out to his mother, his sister, his son, to anyone who might’ve been able to help, and no one broke through the walls of his silence and trauma to help him.

Colette Fleming, age 51, was a charming, childlike woman who was often a leader in homeless women’s organizing efforts through the Women’s Housing, Equality, and Enhancement League (WHEEL). In some ways, Colette saw herself as one of WHEEL’s soldiers.

Whenever Colette found out WHEEL was planning an action, she would say, decisively, "I’ll be there!" and she’d always show up. Just days before she died at the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), Colette was one of a handful of women who conducted a memorial cleansing for Nicholas "Rooster" Helhowski, a 20-year-old formerly homeless youth and activist whose beating death is still unsolved. She felt, very keenly, the abuses and deprivations of her homeless comrades — more so, perhaps, than she felt her own. She never complained about her situation. She did, sometimes, disappear.

On the night she died, she took ill early and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Staff there observed her for several hours, and then she was released back to her shelter. Her fellow shelter residents tried to awaken her the next morning, and couldn’t.

Forward Observers

Gary Funk was a Forward Observer for his troop, an artilleryman who operated within infantry units, who observed the fall of artillery fire and corrected it. It was one of the most dangerous assignments: FOs were at the center of the unit, with the commanders and radio operators. Because of this placement, they were prime targets for enemy fire; they also were in prime position to be gunned down accidentally by their own troops. (An estimated 30 percent of casualties in Vietnam were from friendly fire.) In addition to the displacement of being thousands of miles from home, witnessing the mayhem of war, FOs were displaced as well from their troops: their infantry comrades were 10 to 15 miles behind them.

In a way, Colette also was a Forward Observer, and doubly displaced. She went out to do her organizing work with WHEEL, and returned to her shelter, not a pretty place, with stories of WHEEL’s victories. A shelter worker from DESC expressed amazement at the good work Colette did with WHEEL: "She presented much differently at DESC," where she obviously felt safe enough to reveal some of her deeper issues of estrangement and, possibly, addiction. She had family in the area, but never integrated her family life with the life and work she had here in Seattle.

When I first heard the term Forward Observers, I thought of miner’s canaries: the ones sent out ahead to see whether the situation is survivable.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

At the Women in Black vigil, 24 women stood in a straight line of silent attention for Gary Funk, just two days after Memorial Day. In the current atmosphere of proliferating patriotism, some women came to honor a Vietnam War veteran, dead of homelessness. Some came out of respect for their friend, Colette Fleming, to whom the vigil was dedicated.

A World War I poem by Wilfred Owen rang through my head as I tried to imagine what it was like for Gary Funk when he returned from his tours of duty traumatized, homeless. Owen, who himself was temporarily discharged from the army with shellshock, later returned to the Front and was killed just one week before the Armistice.

It is more than coincidence that Owen uses the imagery of homelessness, soldiers "bent double, like old beggars under sacks" in his stunning antiwar poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est." He writes:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce and decorum est
Pro patria mori.*
(*How sweet and proper it is to die for the Fatherland.)

What does it mean to be a veteran of a domestic war, I wondered; I had asked my homeless friend who coined that phrase the same question. "I was thinking that when you’re through with the experience of homelessness, it stays with you," she said, "and you still feel camaraderie with other veterans" of that experience.

"Kind of like PTSD?" I asked. "Yes," she said.

Although she could not articulate it, the feeling behind her statement, born of her own years of homelessness, is the feeling of being blamed, isolated, alienated, and at war, within herself and at the hands of others. Many homeless people, war veterans or not, feel like enemies in their own country.

Since the beginning of SHARE/WHEEL’s Tent City, the first action at any new camp is raising the U.S. flag. At one point, shortly after September 11, there were four full-sized American flags flying over the camp in Tukwila, defiantly symbolizing the camp members’ perspective: We are, after all, Americans!

Perhaps comparing war and homelessness is a risky analogy; it is definitely an analogy of subtle shadings. Perhaps privilege makes us blind to the possibility it might be true. While I was writing this, I spoke with an older gentleman who was an American diplomat stationed in Phnom Penh during the Vietnam War. I was unable, during the course of our conversation, to get him to understand or believe that Vietnam vets like Gary Funk exist, largely unsupported by the VA; that scores of American veterans are living and dying on the streets.

Homeless women, adept at empathy, don’t think the war analogy goes too far. Homelessness, for them, has been an experience characterized by constant, grinding fear and deprivation. Homeless people get sick from the experience, often. Homeless people die prematurely — "We have casualties," women joked, "and we have to live in barracks (communal shelters)." During this conversation, a homeless woman came by and matter-of-factly asked whether we’d heard about the Native American woman whose body was dumped near the train tracks, near King Street station. "Koolaid was sleeping down there," she said; "She heard the thump of the body being dumped. Talk to Koolaid!" It is the second time in two weeks I’ve heard this story.

The effect of this domestic war — the targeting, blaming, dehumanization, and isolation of homeless people — is real, and the same as any overt war declared by our government: Death is the inevitable result, and it is neither sweet nor proper. WHEEL and the Church of Mary Magdalene have stood 18 vigils for 21 outdoor deaths of homeless people in the past two years: Homeless people in our city have been stabbed, beaten, burnt, shot, run over by trains.

In a beautiful feature in the July 8 New Yorker, Louis Menand writes of the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial, Maya Lin. He describes Lin’s initially controversial design: "The wall is black granite, polished so that it will reflect. You look into the underground, where the dead are buried, and you see, behind their names, the ghost of your face." The act of facing The Wall forces people into the human story, into empathy, and even, perhaps, into accountability.

"The Vietnam Memorial is a piece about death for a culture in which people are constantly being told that life is the only thing that matters," Menand writes. "It doesn’t say that death is noble, which is what supporters of the war might like it to say, and it doesn’t say that death is absurd, which is what critics of the war might like it to say. It only says that death is real, and that in a war, no matter what else it is about, people die."

In many ways, the silent wall of black-garbed women standing memorial vigils for dead homeless people serves the same purpose.

— Memorial by Michele Marchand


Homeless Memorials