Let's Not Forget

A few weeks ago, Boise witnessed an overwhelming display of violence. So much so, it was reported on NPR, USA Today, CNN, CNBC, The Washington Post....

A man showed up at a 3 year old girls birthday party. He stabbed and injured 9 people most of whom where children. The three year old birthday girl died two days later while in the hospital. 

I've hesitated to write about this for a few reasons. First, because it's sad and hard to talk about. Second, because it felt like this was all that anyone was able to talk about. I needed a break from the near constant barrage of news. I needed to stop seeing this man's face in my head. And, because, Boise is a small city. It's pretty tight knit. And, I had no idea at the time, but I was one of the last people to speak with this man before he went and did what he did. 

As I write this last sentence, it sounds unbelievable.

Here's what happened:

He showed up at my office on Thursday (7/28 before the Saturday evening violence). He asked to fill out an application and he wanted to meet with me about it. I was already in a meeting and he decided to wait for me. As soon as I was free, I shook his hand, introduced myself, shoed him into my office, and closed the door. We had a very short chat where I explained our training program and he explained that he was in desperate need of work.

I noticed a few things about him:

He had a hard time maintaining eye contact. He never stopped fidgeting. He spoke fast with a thick southern accent. I could tell he heard and understood what I said. He seemed coherent enough to answer my questions. He did not come across as violent or dangerous. He did appear manic. He did appear to honestly want and need to be working.

I walked him outside and told him is he showed up at our orientation meeting the next day (Friday), I would talk about the next steps he could take.

Here's what I did not say to him:

I meet a lot of people in this job, all of them traumatized to varying degrees. We serve a fairly specific population and we have a had zero success with people who are chronically homeless. They just have too many mental health issues preventing them from being work ready. I vowed that if he came to orientation, I would find out more about him. But, I seriously doubted I would ever see him again.

Friday's meeting came and went with no sign of him. I was relieved, but not surprised.

On Saturday, we held a huge all day event at Capital Park. Right around noon, at least three different co-workers found me to say that there was a man looking for me. A few moments later, I turned around and he had been standing very close behind me. He called me by my name. I noticed fear inside me. I was instantly mad at myself for being afraid of a man who was clearly in need. He spoke fast. I had to slow him down. He was hard to understand. He still wanted to join our class even though he had missed the meeting. He did not disclose what had happened - only that something did happen - and he was forced to sleep in the park the last 2 nights.

I made a mental note to look up any arrest records he may have had when I got back to the office. He quickly turned his attention to the beer tent and walked away. I watched him walk away and let out a long breath. I didn't realize I'd been holding my breath. The rest of the day was a blur of busyness.

I was out of town, out of cell range, most of Sunday. I didn't really even hear about it until Monday morning as my Mom and I drove up to the hot springs in Idaho City. She mentioned it casually, as if I'd already known this man that had sat in my office and found me in the park, stabbed nine people and killed a three year old girl on her birthday. That evening she and I stood at the City Hall steps with a thousand of our neighbors to show our support for the families who had been devastated. It was a strange mix of outrage that this sort of violence could happen here, and concern. Everyone in attendance genuinely wanted to do something practical to make this right. A heavy sadness pervaded everything. A child has died.

Taken at the vigil at the city hall steps in the center of downtown Boise, Idaho.

Taken at the vigil at the city hall steps in the center of downtown Boise, Idaho.

It turns out, a woman living in the apartment complex, a refugee, had allowed him to stay on her couch for a little while, but had asked him to leave when something happened. He returned on Saturday evening in a rage.

I've noticed a few things since all this happened. And I'm trying not to forget the things I'm learning here. Maybe we can work on this together?

In our great rush to make sure that our refugee community feels safe in their adopted homeland, we've actually said and done some things that have not been super welcoming or helpful. Well meaning members of our community started showing up at the apartment complex to bring flowers and cards and who knows what else... But once a violent and traumatic event has happened to a family (in this case multiple families) the thought of random strangers showing up might be considered intrusive. And, in early local news reports, it was said that the man who did this was "not from around here." Excuse me, but neither are the refugees whom he attacked. This exclusionary language is confusing when we put such a huge importance on inclusion and community.

Chief Bones, and a dedicated group of officials and members of the community, have done an excellent job of communicating the needs and requests of the victims and their families. Medical bills, therapy bills, utility bills are being generously covered because our neighbors have stepped in to show practical support and make sure that the people who are affected by this tragedy receive seamless and continuous care. Boise, this is a beautiful thing to behold.

I think Mr. Rogers is famous for saying that in the midst of chaos and confusion, we must look for the helpers. I'm learning that Boise is filled with helpers. And, for this, I am truly grateful.

In our news cycle, the appearance of chaos and confusion has dissipated, but the victims are still in the thick of it. And, when tragedy strikes, it is natural that as we grieve, we look for someone else to blame. I've heard reports that the woman who offered this man a place to sleep has been harassed and ostracized within the apartment complex. I've been thinking a lot about what I would say to this woman if I could. I bet she will carry this blame within her for the rest of her life. But, is that helpful? No. Of course not.

I think what I would say is this: Please don't stop being generous. Please learn how to keep your family, and yourself safe. But, please don't stop offering what you have to the people around you who need it.

I had two short interactions with this man, and both times, my entire central nervous system was on high alert. I did not feel safe around him. Maybe we all need to start listening to ourselves a little more. I could not have imagined he was capable of doing this. But, he did appear mentally unstable and pretty desperate.

Do I think he should be held accountable for his actions? Yes. 

But, I also think, we need to be learning all we can about the devastating effects of mental illness and be willing to talk about it. Out loud. 

Let's not forget that this was not a crime against refugees. Although they happen to be the ones who will suffer for years to come. This is about mental illness gone unchecked. And this is something we can all start to speak up about.