I was in a back room of Skid Row’s Midnight Mission, listening to faith clash with reality.
On one side of a desk sat Peter Barmus, a well-intentioned young man making good on a promise to God. Peter believes he has the answer to homelessness.
Behind the desk sat Clancy Imislund, a tough, smart and pragmatic ex-drunk who has run the Mission for 15 years and has no pat answers.
They were talking about hope, salvation and the lack of both.
Even as they spoke, the morning crowd was drifting toward the Mission for a free meal, converging with dulled instincts to where the food might be.
They were street people who had survived another night, crawling out of doorways and cardboard shelters, dream-walking in a hard, yellow sunlight.
Clancy’s legions were stirring to life even as Peter pressed his faith.
Barmus is 33 and a city building inspector. Bothered that not enough is being done to help the homeless, he’s sponsoring an initiative that would require charities and churches to do more. It would also legalize the detention and forced treatment of transients with drug or alcohol problems.
It’s an idea that hasn’t got a chance in hell of going anywhere.
Even if Barmus should get the 48,000 signatures necessary to put his initiative on the ballot, it would die aborning.
Critics have already challenged two of its proposals as unconstitutional. You can’t force churches or charities to act, and you can’t detain without due process.
Clancy Imislund took on the third issue.
“Force-treat these people?” he was saying, talking about those who clustered in the doorway like animals huddled against a storm.
“You can’t treat people who don’t want to be treated, and believe me when I say the people you see here don’t want to be treated.”
There is an intensity to Imislund that fills a room. An advertising executive who hit the skids, he hasn’t had a drink in 31 years and is an almost legendary figure on the Row.
“But at least you can get them here to be diagnosed,” Peter argued, uncomfortable under Imislund’s hard stare.
Peter is slight and soft-spoken. A compassionate man, he promised God he’d help the homeless if he got through an illness, and has spent years trying.
“They’d go in the front door and out the back,” Clancy said. “It’s a noble idea. I’m just telling you it won’t work.”
Peter argued that they deserved a chance to get off the streets. Clancy said they were there by choice.
Here was the elemental clash: Peter wanting to drag the dispossessed up the mountainside, Clancy insisting they’d go down the other side.
“Let me tell you about Skid Row.” It was Clancy talking. “The people on it can’t cope with the conflict of a structured life.
“An example: Every day I see deaths here, Peter. Drug overdoses in the alleys, stabbings in the street, hypothermia in the morning. But you know the one kind of death I never see?”
“Old age,” Peter said, expecting a cliche.
“Suicide,” Clancy said. The room was silent. “Suicides, Peter, are caused by emotional conflict. There is no emotional conflict here. The people have given up. They just get by.”
The debate was brief. Peter would have liked Clancy’s help. What he got was the benefit of Clancy’s experience.
One of the last things Imislund said to him was, “If you had something that would work, I’d go along with it.”
Then Clancy, as the old song goes, lowered the boom: “But if there were a solution that easy, someone would have found it. A lot of people have been looking a hell of a lot longer than you have.”
I admire men like Clancy Imislund who face life on its own hard, cold terms. But I also admire guys like Barmus.
Everybody makes promises to God. They make them in hospital beds, at war, in jail or walking down dark streets with footsteps behind them. But damned few of those promises are carried out.
For two years, Barmus has gathered food and clothing for the homeless on his own. He’s tapped his savings and drawn heavily on his $45,000-a-year salary to hand out doughnuts and grocery certificates, a lot of it in front of the Midnight Mission.
Only when he decided that wasn’t enough did he come up with the idea for a citywide initiative.
The confrontation with Clancy won’t stop him. He’s out looking for volunteers to gather signatures and he’s looking for moral support to crystallize his faith.
“At least,” he said to me as we parted, “I’m out here trying. I’m making people think.”
Not even Clancy would argue that.