The following piece appeared in the Chico Enterprise-Record on March 8, 2018, as part of the column, North State Voices.
You can’t have conversations without the other side
You’d never have guessed he’d been released from San Quentin earlier in the day. Pretty average looking, maybe early to mid 30s, polite and friendly, though clearly stressed.
This was winter of 2016, and I was doing intake at Safe Space Winter Shelter in Chico. He hadn’t been at the shelter before, so I signed him in and did his paperwork.
His story emerged as we filled out the intake forms. He’d been released that morning. Drug offense, didn’t say much else, didn’t justify or deny. He’d been cut loose with enough money for a bus ticket to Chico, and was expected to report to his parole officer on Monday.
He wasn’t originally from Chico but had been living here with his wife at the time of his arrest. They’d divorced while he was in prison and she’d long ago moved, so he no longer had any connection to the area. Some vagary of the justice system dictated he return.
His paperwork was loose, not in a binder or even a trash bag. Everything he was required to take to his parole officer on Monday was literally in a 3- to 4-inch stack of loose paperwork that he struggled to keep together. He had nothing else except the clothes on his back and a few bucks leftover after bus fare.
Mind you, he’d been released on a Friday, so here he was, washed up in a town where he had no connections, in the middle of winter, without so much as a coat or even a bag to carry the papers.
I was outraged. I remain outraged. We found a backpack for him and the shelter scared up a coat, and he was gone by my next shift. I don’t know what happened to him, but I’ve wondered about him many times.
Whatever you think about crime and criminals, how we prosecute nonviolent crimes and drug offenses, the ethics of a for-profit prison system, rehabilitation vs. punishment (and lord knows there’s a lot to unpack and discuss there), surely we can all agree this particular outcome is a recipe for disaster.
There is much to say about all of that, but I’ll leave it there, because I’m headed toward something else.
I’d never have known any of this, would never have bumped up against this possibility, if I hadn’t been involved with Safe Space.
I’m not going to harangue you further about getting involved, but the story serves to illustrate a broader point. I’m as stereotypically white, middle aged and middle class as can be. Nowhere in my usual well-trodden path would I have encountered this man, and even if I had it’s unlikely I’d have spent time with him or heard his story.
It’s valuable to engage with the “other,” especially for those of us who hold power, and there is much to be gained by brushing up against people in situations so different from our own — for them and perhaps even more so for us. These types of encounters temper our judgments, enlighten us, and broaden our perspectives. They’re an opportunity to recognize and reflect on our shared humanity. They are just plain good for our souls.
These opportunities to meet each other (with all the friction that sometimes entails) get lost in the push to force the undesirables out of downtown and away from stores, to make them less visible or drive them out of Chico all together. We may well succeed in getting them out of sight, but doing so won’t resolve the essential issues, only diminish the breadth of our perspective on them.
Like most of you, I want to see my country, state and community live up to our shared ideals. There is so much we can’t control, but we can do better locally. It starts with having these conversations, and that can only happen if we literally see each other, and if we engage.
Our conversations need to include, rather than just be about, those who are less fortunate. They need to include those who are struggling with addiction, who are dirty and unkempt, who were just released from prison, who made dumb mistakes. If we don’t find a way to incorporate their perspectives, we will not only all be more impoverished for it, but real, lasting solutions will continue to elude us.
— Angela McLaughlin