Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed
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 WHEELs 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 sons 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 were all veterans
of a domestic war," said a homeless woman when she learned of these
"Seems like every month theyre falling like flies,"
said another, of the homeless people weve 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.
Its 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 sons 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
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
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 didnt 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 Jesuss color"
he always remembered to pay the rent; he was diligent about that.
But in the last few months of his life he didnt pay, "for
a long time," according to his housing provider. He didnt
reach out to his mother, his sister, his son, to anyone who mightve
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 womens organizing efforts through
the Womens Housing, Equality, and Enhancement League (WHEEL).
In some ways, Colette saw herself as one of WHEELs soldiers.
Whenever Colette found out WHEEL was planning an action, she would say,
decisively, "Ill be there!" and shed 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 couldnt.
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
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 WHEELs 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 miners
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 devils 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 youre 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/WHEELs 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, dont 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 wed 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 Ive 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
Lins 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 doesnt say that death is noble, which
is what supporters of the war might like it to say, and it doesnt
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