Putting A Face On The Homeless: Memories Of A Cousin

By Jack Beslanwitch

Fifty years ago two children were born two months apart, one on May 27th, another on July 30th. We grew up together, were best friends together, cousins together. We swam together, fished together, double dated and went to proms. At one point, Bud and I were in a rowboat on Wade Lake, a lake close to West Yellowstone and Yellowstone Park, a place that Bud loved dearly. We spotted a moose on the shore and Bud decided he would make moose calls. Then we discovered that moose could swim and we could row real fast. Another time, when Bud’s grandfather died, he was asked to play taps on a coronet for his grandfather. He loved his coronet and he loved his grandfather. He refused. But later, as the funeral was ending, he was some way off and played taps for his grandfather. Played it as only Bud could play that anthem to those departed.

 We entered the Marines or the Navy, went to college, started lives, went on to what we hoped would be the rest of our lives, hopefully happy ones.

There were things going on behind the scenes that neither of us talked about and we each had to deal with.  Our lives went on. What neither of us knew was that many years later one would teach the other what the face of homelessness truly could be.

At a point in those two timelines something happened. We each had traumas that touched us. We each explored drugs and alcohol. We each tried to climb beyond what might have been and what happened. And the birthdays came. The years passed. There came a time in my own life when my first marriage died, my business died and my father died in the space of six weeks and I climbed into a bottle of rum and coke and stayed there for a while. There were other traumas that touched Bud’s life from much earlier and after and he climbed somewhere similar and stayed.

I do not know how often he climbed back out, but there is sadness in my soul that I did not try to truly find out. More importantly, there is sadness in my soul that I never knew that he made that one step backwards that left him on the streets in Billings, Montana. I do not know just how often he sat the streets and pan handled for food and alcohol. I know he spent parts of nine years. I know, from a nurse at the Rescue Mission his feet were frostbitten twice.  There are places to be homeless; Billings in the winter is not one of them.

He spent some of that time in a Rescue Mission in Billings. He was sometimes on the street; sometimes with a roof over his head. Bud had burned bridges to his family with alcohol and threats and actual acts of violence. I burned bridges with distance and a busy life. Ultimately I came back to my cousins and my family. Bud did not except for brief moments, until close to his own death, in 2001. Many facts are still not clear and may never be clear, but it appears that he either sought or was involuntarily sent into detox and, however it was done, it was botched. He vomited. He aspirated. He contracted pneumonia. He became infected. Ultimately, he died. What I want you to remember, is that he had a face. He had people who loved him. Miss him. Feel guilt that we could have not done more. Feel sad that he would not let us do more.

One of the memorials for him took place in the chapel of a rescue mission. Bud lived there off and on for nine years. His sisters donated a meal for those living in that Mission that day. There we heard the words from the family. Then we heard from those who knew Bud during those nine years. We heard from a cook who told us that Bud, when asked, “How good a cook are you?” he answered, “The best!” And he was. The best. Whether he blew a coronet or made meat loaf for the residents of the rescue mission or sat on the streets with a sign asking for help. Here we learned from a nurse about how he had frost bitten his feet. She also related how he spotted her on the street and peeked up over his sign and pointed with a smile to his feet. That was Bud. Sometime soon we will take part of his ashes and spread them on the waters of Wade Lake from a boat. Another part may be buried with a full Marine sendoff, including a headstone, burial and taps. We will miss this man we knew. More, we will miss the boy we knew who did not suffer from the demons that made him drink and continue to drink. We will miss him more, because we could not say good-bye in person. There were many who knew him over the course of his life, cared about him and loved him. All will miss him.

It is hoped that we can do better for others who sit behind the pieces of cardboard or at the Mission doors than we did for Bud. Whether feeding those that are hungry or helping those with an addiction, it is hoped that we can be there for those that may not ask us to help. Let us stand up for their rights. Unlike Seattle, Billings does not suffer from the loss of low-income housing. Gentrification may sound like a good thing as it makes a city wealthier, a better tax base. But it drives out those who are less than a pay-check away from the streets, as rental costs climb out of reason. So, when someone voices the anguish of being hungry or not having a bed to sleep in, I have a face that I can attach to my compassion for those who are in need of whatever kind. If the loss of my cousin in this seemingly senseless way at an early age has any meaning, for me this is it. That I can touch my own compassion and in doing so, reach out to others.

Some potential points to look at if you are considering how you can help those in need include the following where you can learn more from those who are much closer to all of these issues and more knowledgable than I:

Northwest Harvest - This is one of the pre-eminent sources for collecting and supplying food to those in need in the Seattle area and around the state of Washington..
Real Change lists itself as the Puget Sound Newspaper of the Poor and Homeless. If you see someone selling a a Real Change, please consider buying one. It is one way to use free enterprise in a way that actually does help the homeless.

As always, I am open to your thoughts and reflections via email at jack@webwitch.com

Jack Beslanwitch