His work hangs in homes of family and friends throughout Southeast Alaska, but Thomas Bell doesn’t have a home of his own.
The elderly Tlingit homeless man weaves figures — usually crosses — out of rope and either gives them away or sells them for a small amount of money. As he delivered his most recent piece Monday, he brought a message with him as well.
Bell leaned on his walker as he stood in the lobby of the downtown fire station and handed his newest cross, made of salvaged rope from a crab pot, to Capital City Fire/Rescue Chief Richard Etheridge. The gift is one of goodwill, Bell said, as many of his homeless brethren appreciate the work that emergency workers do.
As CCFR plays a role in the survival of the homeless, Bell wanted his gift to bring some comfort to those emergency workers when they’re on the job. Bell had one instruction for Etheridge.
“Have everybody touch it when they go on emergency runs,” Bell said.
The gift was a surprise to Etheridge, who said he can’t remember the department ever getting a gift like this. The delivery, Bell explained, has actually been a long time coming.
Bell gave another one of his crosses to the Juneau Police Department this summer, and wanted to give one to CCFR as well. He was just waiting for the right time.
“I thought about presenting at the fire station a long time ago,” Bell said, “but I didn’t know when. I was thinking, ‘9/11.’ Seems like an appropriate time to do it.”
The two men had a brief exchange about remembering the sacrifice of emergency workers on Sept. 11, 2001, and spoke a bit about the struggle that homeless people face in Juneau. Kerry Leaf, an advocate for the homeless who spends his nights on the street, was also there and spoke at length about how difficult it is to find places to sleep in town.
A Point in Time Count in April revealed that 6.6 out of every 1,000 people in Juneau are homeless, the highest rate in the state. Leaf recounted numerous incidents of homeless being kicked out of places they’re trying to sleep, and said that having both JPD and CCFR embrace Bell’s gifts is a meaningful gesture.
“It means a lot when you accept this … for these guys that have almost no hope,” Leaf said.
With his artwork, Bell looks to restore some of that hope. His crosses hang in buildings in town including Polaris House and The Glory Hole. His craft dates back to about 20 years ago, when he was riding the M/V LeConte and he noticed a piece of art made from rope.
He still remembers the small anchors that hung from the corners of the artwork and thinking to himself that he could do that. He stared at the piece and studied it, then simply taught himself how to do it. Now, he can make a large cross in about eight hours.
Bell is a member of the Russian Orthodox church, and his faith is important to him. He said he’s fascinated in all religions, and hopes that other homeless people can draw inspiration from seeing his work and seeing him give it as a gift.
He’s gone to jail multiple times, he said, but that hasn’t stopped him from presenting a cross to JPD and working to get along with the officers. In a larger sense, Bell hopes to improve the relationship between the homeless and law enforcement.
As he spoke to Etheridge on Monday, Bell held out his hand palm up, his fingers permanently bent from years of weaving.
“It’s time,” Etheridge said, slowly turning his hand palm-down, “to turn the page.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.