Gangs, drugs and the homeless filled our dinnertime news broadcasts in the '80s. "Bag ladies" were a film trope in the Reagan/Bush I years, indicative of the urban decay we were so happy to have avoided in North Idaho. We didn't have panhandlers in Sandpoint, giving us a sense of civic righteousness that nobody in "our town" could be laid so low.
Of course, we were completely wrong. Along the railroad tracks a few miles north of town was "Bum Jungle"--a wooded spot where trains slowed enough for "hobos" to jump from the box cars and set up camp for a night or two.
Bum Jungle had been a local institution for decades--a throwback even to the earliest times in Sandpoint, when itinerant workers would jump off and hope for the best.
By the '80s, it had shrunk, but we kids were told never to wander there. By the late '90s, it was all but gone. Now most of it has been paved over by the Sand Creek Byway.
There was an undeniable romance to the idea of Bum Jungle--I never visited when it was in use, but I saw the remnants: piles of old bottles and cans, makeshift shelters, fire rings. Exactly what you'd expect from a "hobo camp" in a Steinbeck novel. As far as I and my fellow country kids knew, those were the homeless in our community, and to our eyes they'd chosen to live that way. We could still be cheerful about our moral and economic rightness.
Of course, we were completely wrong. Homelessness was all around us in much less "romantic" settings. Thinking back on the kids I went to school with whose families lived with grandparents, the friends who had an uncle or cousin staying with them, the families who let relatives park a camper on their property for a while, it became clear to me later that hard times were everywhere, I just didn't see them.
This week's feature by Staff Writer Harrison Berry takes a look at homelessness in Boise, but you won't find a lot of hand wringing. Rather, Berry's piece profiles services available to local people struggling with homelessness--showing who is doing what locally and painting a picture of some of the challenges they face even after they've transitioned from the streets to a place of their own.
Homelessness is still all around us, and it's still bigger than the bag ladies, panhandlers and hobos of our all-too simple judgments.