Everywhere I look, there are more and more homeless, hopeless, desperate people. There is a lot of concern for their plight, too, and a group of people gathered recently in my church to listen to the Director of a local overnight shelter providing beds and Gospel–and training, and clothing, and social services and more–to all comers. Our group was eager to hear about this work, to find out about concrete ways to help, and for practical advice on what to do to best help the homeless we encounter every day. The Director spoke knowledgeably and helpfully, with a great love for God and man.
One remark he made really struck me: that people often think that if we just had more shelters, just had more housing, then we would not have homelessness in our country. He said that is not true–because a major root cause of homelessness in America isn’t the lack of buildings, it is mental illness, and the substance abuse and trauma that accompany it. Many mentally ill people even turn down overnight shelter, panicking at the thought of being closed in, or of being in a dorm with many strangers. For them, sleeping under a bridge even in bitter cold feels safer and more secure.
He felt that there would always be homeless folks, in part because of those reasons. I think he is right. People like to fix things, to think that they can come up with something that will solve this problem once and for all. Society just just needs to put their minds to it. No doubt we can make tremendous inroads into the problem, but there is a certain population that will be hard to help, if help for them is even possible at all. It will not be glamorous work to even try.
As an example, I was shelving books at the library last week, and passed a homeless man sitting and reading in the corner. He was not only reading, he was scooping catsup-soaked french fries out of a takeout box. I gently asked him to put the food away, that eating was not allowed in the library. “What?!” he mumbled, and I repeated my request. He complied. As I moved away down the aisle, I heard him grumbling steadily to himself about how a person can’t even sit down around here . . . Other patrons thought he might be talking to them, and paused, but he dismissed them with a wave, saying that he was just thinking outloud. He quieted and began to read again. My shelving brought me nearer to him again, and he called out ” have a good day, ma’am”. I thanked him, wished him well, and suddenly he said “I come in here because I can feel all of my knowledge escaping from my head. I am forgetting everything. I want to read all of these books here so that I can put my knowledge back in.” At a loss for words, I assured him that he could come to the library and read all that he wanted. He nodded at that. Our conversation went on for a bit, and I left to finish my shelving. How frightened he must be at the turn his life had taken, feeling dementia affecting him, trying as hard as he could to maintain his life, his dignity, his very self without love or company. I cannot imagine it.
The reality of helping him is not glamorous, though. About 15 minutes later, he had left his chair, his book propped open on the seat. There was a terrible odor. He had an “accident” he told a librarian, his head lowered in shame. He had had a bowel movement as he had sat and read, and needed to clean himself up. He did so, in the bathroom, then slipped away to the streets.
The chair had to be sanitized and deodorized. The book had to be destroyed.
The man himself is out there somewhere wandering the city, unable to care for himself, terrified of losing his mind, yet resistant to committing himself to psychiatric care.
What kind of country are we that this kind of suffering can go on among us, and we are unwilling to address–and finance– possible solutions? What are the solutions anyway? It is even more shameful that so many of these folks are Veterans . . .