Her flat expression aimed toward the ground. No older than 20, she stood there in jeans and t-shirt underneath a tarp at this homeless encampment in Minneapolis.
A month or so ago, when we first met, Janee—this time sitting on one of the camp couches—asked me plainly, "Are you a cop?" not seeming too worked up about it even if I was.
Now in that same mellow vibe, but also a youthful openness, and her curly, dark hair tied back, Janee said “hey” to me when I visited.
She goes by “Janee,” holding private her birth name while out here on the streets. But she has been rather open to me about her situation.
Her father is around but won't let her stay with him—hasn’t since high school.
“He said, ‘I don’t want you bringing around those hood rats,’” Janee told me.
Her mother is also around—but also now out on the streets as well.
And her own kids--staying with relatives who are clean and sober.
She once said, as if to reassure me (or herself), "I do want to get out of here."
Yet with her, as with others, there's a gulf between such vague, distant intentions I hear in these camps and the day-to-day decisions they're willing to make. That intention isn't too distant, however, to maintain a lightness of belief that this life isn't keeping them trapped, that it's just "for now".
Behind me and to my left were three or four young men and women seated and standing under another tarp--all jumpy, talkative, and disheveled--with others moving in and out of this apparent social spot at the camp.
Nearby tents reveal silhouettes of those slouched over, or a foot and leg seen through an open tent flap. Emerging from one of these tents, a young man dazed and confused asked me a favor. Shoeless as he was, might I be able to stomp out his cigarette now dropped onto the ground?
Whether dazed, active, or slouched over, one common trait they carry--literally--is a small piece of tinfoil. Blackened with burned fentanyl powder, they flick their lighter underneath, a straw in mouth ready to inhale the smoke rising from the foil.
I looked back at Janee.
"At least I'm young," she said to rationalize her life out here. "I'm glad to have tried this and had this experience early in life."
I wanted to counter, "What about trying for a life avoiding these kinds of experiences altogether?"
I didn't, though. Maybe because I didn't feel like it was my place (or at least the right time) to challenge her. Maybe because it's unproductive to propose such an option for her any longer. Either way, it seems that for her and others here, a life free of such experiences--while comprehensible--is simply not something they envision.
Adding to this is the community-wide nature of this scourge, normalizing it and making it so accessible and even familiar and comfortable.
Yet whether there with family and friends or there alone, all seem lost in a forest whose way out is just not visible.
We on the outside do a good job providing for them while in this forest. What we don't do well (perhaps simply cannot) is help them see and feel that path out.