By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
Nomad: a member of a community without fixed habitation. Do you think the Qualla Boundary has nomads? Are they, by choice, homeless or does their life situation cause them to be so? The obvious answer is “yes”. We do have homelessness on the Boundary and there are those who are both forced into homelessness and those who are homeless by choice.
You don’t see it as much here because of the closeness of family and the traditional relationships among family and friends in “Cherokee”, which among locals means the whole Boundary. Streetside beggars are not as prevalent in our neighborhoods as they are in places like Waynesville and Asheville, where you are likely to find cardboard sign clad men and women stationed in medians at roadway intersections and public parks that turn into tent cities until the municipality gets enough complaint for them to use law enforcement to encourage relocation. Our homeless issue is less visible, and therefore, less on the radar of our government.
Legislation, now over five years old, was passed in Tribal Council to build not only a homeless shelter, but also a soup kitchen to feed the indigent. At that time, there was an acknowledgement of the issue.
The officials who drafted the legislation wrote, “There is a great need within our community to help those who are less fortunate and are currently homeless or have no means of food.” A great need.
Surely, the nature of homelessness has changed or at least evolved on the Boundary. As some have stated, you don’t see many people huddled under bridges or walking the main thoroughfares with the parcel of belonging slung over their shoulder on a stick. If there are family members or close friends around, typically they will spare whatever room they have for acquaintances of lesser means, whether that is a spare trailer or a spare square of space on the floor. I have heard it said that “we take care of our own”. And the community, to a large extent, does exactly that.
There are those who choose the nomadic lifestyle. Some enjoy a place with roots, while others avoid being tied down at all costs. To them, it is a personal choice and part of their feeling of freedom. Others, while able to provide a place of their own, will move in with elderly parents or grandparents, partly as a cost savings to themselves and partly to provide support and caregiving to a family member. Technically, they are homeless, but by choice.
When I worked with the Tribe’s tourism office, there was an old gentleman who we repeatedly had to “evict” from the exhibit hall at the Ceremonial Grounds (or fairgrounds). He was one of those who walked the streets during the day and looked for empty and unlocked buildings to “bed down” for the night. A harmless and sweet old man who just didn’t think or could contrive a means of permanent residence. I never knew much about him; except he was very inventive in the way he would get into the exhibit hall to get his nightly rest. The staff over there would seal off one route and the old man would find another. He never caused any issues, and the place was never disturbed, vandalized, or burglarized. He just wanted to have a safe place to sleep.
A disturbing question always comes up even when we are talking about doing charitable things. During the discussions in 2016 as they passed the legislation, one Council member asked if only tribal member homeless would be the only people allowed to use the facility and services. This question always sounds uncharitable to me. I understand that our first duty is to our tribal citizens, and I am fully in favor of tribal citizens being prioritized in a project like a homeless shelter, but to want to make sure only tribal citizens will be assisted just doesn’t seem right. After all, how outraged would we be if other governments had shelters and said we will only serve members of our own race? To quote William Shakespeare, “the quality of mercy is not strained.” Putting parameters on helping the homeless is a judgement that I don’t think I am capable of and I hope we as a people are against.
For example, homeless people who are truly without means, are very likely to be people who, some might consider, have made poor life choices. Maybe they chose the wrong life partner and now are stuck without employment. Maybe they have several children and are raising them as a single parent and cannot make enough to keep them in a home. Maybe a gentleman or lady waited too late in life to prepare for their golden years and are now having to rattle a tin cup in front of strangers for their next meal. Or maybe some have taken to a lifelong addiction to alcohol or some other pain killer, trying to self-medicate; numbing themselves to life’s pain to the point that they can’t manage to eat or find a place to sleep.
The resolution of 2016, in directing Tribal government to construct the homeless shelter and soup kitchen “to be functional and operational in a timely manner”, (five years?), also directed the Principal Chief “to work with programs to establish policies and procedures that will govern the facility and promote life skills to aid those in need an opportunity to become more self-sufficient and capable of getting back on their feet.” Helping the homeless should include helping them to find a sustainable lifestyle, whether they choose the nomadic life or want to put down roots.
Protestant preacher John Bradford lived in the mid-16th century. It is reported that Bradford was watching a group of prisoners being led to their execution when he said the now famous words, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
As we ponder the homeless situation on the Qualla Boundary and what we intend to do about it, we should remember Mr. Bradford’s words. It only takes a small misstep in judgement, or act of fate, to put a person in a position of being homeless. It could happen to me. And it could happen to you. And if it does, I hope that I find on the Qualla Boundary, someone willing to give me a safe place to sleep.