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How One Town Ended Homelessness

Can the lessons of small-town North Dakota be applied to the big city?
(Illustration: Gary Neill)

(Illustration: Gary Neill)

In 1979, when my father was 27, he quit his job as a high school English teacher and bought a music store on the stretch of brick storefronts that made up downtown Grafton, North Dakota. He sold records and tapes and guitars, and rented band instruments to students.

While he liked being his own boss, one inconvenience soon presented itself: daily visits from Louis, or “Screwy Louie,” as many people unkindly called him. In our town, which had a population of 5,000, Louis was the only homeless person, and he cut a memorable figure in his self-chosen uniform: navy-blue work clothes, aviator sunglasses, and— inexplicably—a yellow hard hat. From his lip dangled a cigarette, which he chewed on rather than smoked.

Louis needed money for food and beer, and stores downtown would often improvise and find some task for him. But Dad, who likes routines and dislikes haggling, drew up a more formal schedule, giving Louis defined chores— sweeping the sidewalk, washing the front windows, vacuuming. “On Saturdays he’d get $4.50 for vacuuming the whole store,” Dad recalls. “It took him twice as long as it would for anyone else.”

“It wasn’t like, ‘How can I be Christlike to this poor homeless man?’” Dad says. “But he needed help.”

Dad and Louis saw each other nearly every day for decades. While they weren’t close friends, Dad would learn a lot about Louis—about the difficult relationship he’d had with his mother, about the sister who ran away at 15, about the kids who taunted him, and about his trip to the state mental hospital in Jamestown to undergo tests when he was a young man. Over and over, Louis would tell the story of being taken there against his will, his blue eyes wide with incredulity that this could be done to someone. He would never sign his name to anything, lest it be a ruse to send him back. At Mass on Sundays, Dad would see Louis pacing the back of the church but never sitting down.

Louis lived in his old, dented car, which he kept warm during the brutal Great Plains winters by plugging in a heater behind my parents’ apartment. Some years later, after I’d been born, Father Dale, the priest at St. John the Evangelist, arranged for Louis to move into a room in a church outbuilding, where he lived for nearly a decade. Unfortunately, Father Dale’s successor felt less bound to care for a mentally ill man with poor hygiene and a habit of leaving empty beer cans in his wake. He gave Louis’s supporters a month to find alternative shelter.

That’s how my dad, then middle-aged, found himself agreeing to act as Louis’s conservator, an arrangement proposed by a local judge and lawyer. Louis may not even have known of the plan, but, for the first time in his life, he became the recipient of Social Security, food stamps, and a subsidy that allowed him to rent his own apartment. He acquired a used television set that picked up one channel. The town’s homeless problem had been solved.

On Wednesdays, Dad would visit and make Louis put on clean clothes and hand over his laundry. “It took him half an hour to change clothes,” he says. “I’d mop the floor and watch the one channel of TV and clean the bathroom without touching anything.”

One morning, after Louis hadn’t shown up to the music store for a few days, my dad went to the apartment and found the door locked. After pounding on the door in vain, he got the key from the landlord. Louis had died. He’d been sitting on his sofa with his head down in front of the TV. He was 78.

After high school, I moved to Los Angeles. Suddenly, there were homeless people everywhere—anywhere from 36,000 to 54,000 of them, according to various estimates. They slept in parks, they rode the bus around the city, they begged on street corners. At first I gave a dollar or two to anyone who asked me. Later, I gave only to those who seemed most in need, a compromise that felt unsatisfying. But what do you do when there are tens of thousands of Louises?

Dad can’t quite explain the legal process by which he became Louis’ conservator. “It might not have happened in a bigger town,” he says. “In a smaller town, everyone knows your situation.” Still, he dismisses the idea that his kindness to Louis was unusual. “It wasn’t like, ‘How can I be Christlike to this poor homeless man?’” Dad says. “But he needed help.”

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