“Where are you staying tonight man?”
Sitting there watching my friend pacing back and forth I wondered how it had come to this. He stalked the room in front of me in a fury. He held a blank envelope and made notes as we spoke. He had just stood from sitting next to me and asking me about life. He wore the same clothes he had been wearing the last two weeks. I could smell his body in a way that told me he probably hadn’t bathed in just as long as he had been wearing the clothes on his back. His entire body shook and his hands trembled. I could not tell if it due to him coming in from outside where it was raining, or from fear.
The conversation mirrored most of the exchanges that had gone on between us. He had come to me several months later in need of a advice about how he could cease being homeless. His choosing me was more from a need to relate to someone then the actual logistics of maintaining a residence. I had shared several times of the experience being homeless. For me, it had much more to do with pride then with a lack of funds or employment. I find it difficult to write about this, and only share it due to the feeling I had leaving the room that night. I remember the conflict within me that came from first, desperation of not knowing how to ask for any real help, and then the shame of having failed at life so miserably. I looked in my friends eyes and saw myself, and it frightened me near to death.
I am about as far from that last bridge I lived under as any one could be. I make a pretty fair living as a teacher, and I have learned to embrace that most human of attributes that is humility. I have no fear in that I have taken on the responsibility to take care of myself, with all that entails. One of the items on the list of measures necessary for me to maintain a residence is that I must pass on the knowledge I have gained in seeking and attaining my address. I relate to homeless people on a level that others in the helping professions can only guess at.
I learned how to live inside from an old friend of mine who found me the first time I slept on the streets, after must cajoling and threatening, moved me into the attic room at his parent’s house. Another time (homelessness was a repeat offense for me) another friend of mine literally tried to run me over with her car and threatened to finish the job if I did not get in. She too put me up at her parent’s house (this time in the basement). The last time I came off the streets occurred as a result of asking God what to do. His answer proved quite simple. No one had to force me in any car through persuasive methods such as, sweet-talk, bribery, or menacing words. I woke up and somehow intrinsically knew that I had to call my Dear Sainted Mother, and go back to school.
Twenty four years later, I am still fearful of being without a home. It is not the physical fear of living out in the elements. It is not the reality of having to duck and dodge the police who have little patience with people scrounging in dumpsters, or standing on a corner harassing people with cardboard signs to give the “Food for work.” It is not the fear of being cold, or hot, or getting sick or beaten by others trying to steal what meager possessions you might accrue. It is the look in my eyes that I see when I look in the bus station mirror. It is the feeling that all I am, and all I will ever be, is nothing. It is the fear that I am insane and always be insane. It is the fear that there will be no one to come and rescue me. Finally, it is the fear that that I will disappear into that…thing I will become when I am homeless.
Looking at my friend, I see that thing, you know, the one that wages war with society. The same being that has no regard for common sense, or central air and heat. The same creature give’s various landlord’s seizures, when they discover you in their empty house or apartment, and cannot get the police there in time to arrest you.
I once more attempt to reason with my friend and see if I cannot persuade him to come and sleep on my floor tonight to get out of the rain. Little good are the friends and colleagues I have developed relationships with who provide services for the homeless. He has worked his way through all the available places that would allow him off the street, and does not trust that I can get him into a place simply by calling. He has that battle to instigate where he attacks the rest of the world. The same battle which would not occur if he would just take his medicine.
Therein lays the rub. It is his considered opinion that he does not suffer from a mental illness that requires him to take medicine. Those times when I have had the opportunity to have a conversation with him when he is taking his prescribed medicine, it has always been an amazing experience. He is articulate, caring, intelligent, and amusing. He has common sense in things that I have never been able to deal with. He is a good friend, and valued part of my life.
He is still a valued part of my life when he is not taking his medicine, and always will. Unfortunately, at these times he spoke of things that only he migh find important. He believes that the world is out to get him, and he refuses to trust me, or anyone else. That night we spoke, his focus appeared to be fixated on the people who were outside the back door to the building. There were people there earlier, but had long left when we started talking. He neurotically took notes on each and every word I said, and refused to accept one single idea. Everything I said elicited a comment of mistrust, while telling me that he believed every word spoken.
I drove off that night greatly disturbed. Actually I drove off in tears. From that point I went (surprise, surprise) straight to anger. While it is directly a result of his refusal to take the medicine necessary to function, it is not entirely his fault. We have compartmentalized my friend and others like him into a neat societal class which carries with it a stigma. I believe this is a tragedy of historic significance. At some point in the future, historians will look back on our society, and shake their heads. Like the empires of the past, Rome, Macedonia, China, British, and many others, the historians will assign cause and effect to the decline and destruction of our society. I feel that the manner in which we treat each other is a harbinger of the destruction of the greatest social order the world has ever know. Forget about the physical realities of global warming, wars, pestilence, it is the way we treat other human beings that will destroy us.
We, as human beings, have an amazing machine which is our bodies. The unfortunate part of existing within this wondrous machine is that it can be injured or broken. If one falls and lands in a certain way, bones can be shattered, and the wonders of modern medicine can either repair or replace said injured appendage. If the flu or some other internal disease makes its way to my door, I can take panaceas developed that will wage battle with the germs or bacteria within until I regain health. If I get burned and disfigured, plastic and reconstructive surgery can, possibly, restore me to my former handsomeness.
If my brain is injured or broken, I get called crazy, given medicine that restricts my ability for lucid thought, and I am shunned from the rest of society.
Cancer victims have people who raise funds, run races, and man (or woman) telephones on telethons. Homeless people get forcefully removed from areas of cities when their presence would create a negative sound byte during the Olympics or elections. Funny, I’ve never seen any politicians crawling under a bridge to solicit votes from those living in cardboard boxes. Currently the 66% of homeless people in America suffer from mental illness or substance abuse which, as I can personally attest to from personal experience, is yet another malady of the brain.
Medicine for the flu is given out everywhere, mostly for free. No one has a problem with that reality. What of the medicine that treats mental illness? If you take Prozac, there is usually some comment or look made when this is revealed unless, of course, you are rich or famous. Then it is acceptable. Let a homeless person try to get medicine without an address and see what happens.
Where are the spiritual principles envisaged by the Golden Rule? Every major form of spirituality in the world has some form of the Golden Rule as a part of its dogma. Why does it not get practiced where it comes to the mentally ill? Why do crazy people have to suffer from discrimination on a societal level? What would Jesus do?
We come from a predominantly Christian country, yet no one seems to remember that Jesus Christ was homeless. What if he was out there now? The radical words he chose to preach, got him murdered horribly for being what today would be considered mentally ill. Think about that. Then help me figure out how to help my friend without looking down on him. Peace.