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Haunted by what’s hidden behind white curtain

By Sam Cook Forum News Service

DULUTH — I see the white blanket most mornings on my way to work. It’s lying on the concrete of a hidden walkway, rumpled and semi-frozen.

The first time I saw it was a few weeks ago, before the deep cold set in. I was making my way up the hill to work. The blanket wasn’t lying on the ground that day. It had been suspended, curtain-like, from a low concrete overhang. Essentially, it created a private space under the overhang no more than three feet high and just long enough so that a person could lie on a narrow ledge behind the blanket. The area was warmed by steam that rose from an opening in the pavement.

It didn’t take much to deduce that a homeless person was using the space.

I am not the only one who uses the narrow walkway on a regular basis. Many who work downtown pass by the spot daily, going up the hill in the morning and back down to their parked cars in the afternoon. They must have seen the white curtain that morning. They must see it still, lying dirty and wrinkled near the steam vent.

Another area nearby also is used by a homeless man, perhaps the same person. I have seen him sleeping some mornings on a ledge, mummylike in his sleeping bag. The area is littered with plastic bags, paper coffee cups, plastic bottles, paper sacks and foam containers that might once have held leftovers from warm meals. Various items come and go. This week, I saw a pair of men’s blue jeans lying in the dirt.

Someone lives here.

When I walked by that white blanket the first day it was there, suspended from the concrete overhang, I was not sure what to do. The day was not dangerously cold. A year or two earlier, I had notified officials that someone was sleeping in the area, so they could make contact with him and get him to a shelter if necessary. But when I saw the person sleeping there on occasion since then, I figured he had made his choice.

So, when I saw the white curtain this fall, I paused for a moment, then moved on up the hill. I didn’t want to violate the sleeper’s space. It may seem odd, but I felt that if I pulled the curtain aside and roused the man, it would have been like barging into his home.

But the image of that makeshift curtain haunts me. It makes me think about all of those who are homeless in the town I call home. It makes me wonder what I should be doing to help solve the problem.

Now that the extreme cold has been on us for a week, I haven’t seen the man. But he may rise each day and move on before I make my morning commute, and he may not return until well after my work day is over. Maybe he has sought other shelter.

I think of him almost every day, wondering how he is getting along, what his days are like, whether he is sleeping someplace warm, hoping he is finding food.

The white blanket won’t let me forget him.

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Sam Cook writes for the Duluth News Tribune.