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He died homeless in a tent, but in Shageluk, he belonged

  • Author: Judith Lethin
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 11
  • Published March 10

Robert Workman (left, wearing the white T-shirt) at a baptism in Shageluk in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Judith Lethin)

Someone shot and killed Bobby Workman four years ago this month in a tent on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Karluk Street. The police report called him homeless. I first met him in a place where people called him Uncle Bobby, when the door pushed open at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Shageluk where I was a pastor.

He guided Grandma Elizabeth in from the cold and onto the bench in front of the altar. Her grandchildren crowded in around her, and soon other family members gathered until the tiny framed church was packed. A generous fire had been kindled and one by one coats and hats and mittens came off as the community settled into place for a baptism.

In Shageluk, where the wind blows in from the north on most days in winter, there's an expectation of hospitality. No one is turned away, there is always room for one more, there is always enough — enough time, enough room, enough food.

Uncle Bobby was asked to be godfather to the children that night. There was a shyness about him and a kindness in the way he presented the children for baptism along with the parents and the other godparents. I felt a kinship with him immediately.

Uncle Bobby and I met in Shageluk again, several years later, when Grandma Elizabeth died. He and I shared a small cabin with Elizabeth's family. He had come home for the potlatch out of respect for his relative in the tradition of the Deg Hit'an people from the Innoko River. There's an intimacy to village life and Uncle Bobby was related, in one way or another, to many. He knew he belonged.

When you belong you don't have to ask, "can I come?" You don't have to wait for an invitation to eat when the fried moose steaks and eggs and pancakes are on the table. You don't have to worry about a place to sleep, there's always a bed or a sofa or room in the tent.

I didn't know about all the tent camps. I didn't know that on any given day there are 1,100 people without adequate shelter in Anchorage: 280 are families with children, 69 are veterans who served in our military, 115 are unaccompanied youth who have run away from home and are potential targets for predators.

The idea of that much vulnerability and suffering in our midst seems reprehensible in a city as diverse and intimate as ours. I would be tempted to lose heart altogether except for the work of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and their constituent agencies.

When we see the men and women who stand on the corner of Benson Boulevard and the Seward Highway, we don't see the complexity. In my work in ministry, I've come to understand that the stories that lead people to homelessness are as varied as the people themselves; for some it will be substance abuse; for others it will be poor health or lack of job skills or untreated mental health issues. At any given time Anchorage has 733 men and women who are on the streets and in the woods and parks just surviving. Except some don't.

I don't imagine Uncle Bobby was expecting trouble that night. Maybe he and  his two friends were snugged down in their tent in the woods at the corner of Fifth and Karluk, maybe they were swapping stories and keeping each other warm. In springtime the weather in Alaska is unpredictable.

There were 6 or 7 inches of old snow packed around the camp with a trace of new snow expected that night. The winds were gusting to 17 mph and the temperatures averaged 26 degrees. A man entered the campsite, police said, walked up to their tent, pulled back the flap and shot Uncle Bobby and his two friends? Who was this person who didn't know he belonged?

Uncle Bobby didn't say much during the potlatch for Grandma Elizabeth, he didn't have to. A place like Shageluk with 70 full-time residents feels like an extended family. You don't have to be lonely in Shageluk, you just have to show up and help out.

People might assume Uncle Bobby was homeless because he was camped in the woods. Uncle Bobby wasn't homeless. He had a home anywhere there were Shageluk people. They cared about him and he cared about them. There are odd connections like that all throughout Alaska. If there's room in the tent, hell, throw down your bed roll. If there's baloney and bread, help yourself. If there's whiskey in the bottle, (mind you, I don't know this firsthand) everyone is welcome to a drink.

Uncle Bobby knew the family needed his help during the four days of the potlatch for Grandma Elizabeth. Every morning he was up early and making strong coffee. Every day he hauled water in white five-gallon buckets up the long hill and through the steep trail from the pump house. Every day he chopped wood to keep the fire going. Every day he carried the honey bucket down the icy steps and across the empty dog yard and into the dark woods.

Judith Lethin is a priest in the Episcopal Church. She served as Missioner of the Lower Yukon and Innoko Rivers from 1999 to 2005, and is currently serving as Chaplain at The Thomas Center for Senior Leadership in Anchorage. This essay was written as part of a collaboration between the Anchorage Daily News and 49 Writers.

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