Re: 'The same homeless problems' [Village News, Letter, 11/18/21]
Last updated 12/10/2021 at 9:06am
It was with great interest that I read Supervisor Jim Desmond’s recent column in the Village News. Of particular note was his closing paragraph: “It’s simply inhumane to live like this on the streets. As a society we can do better. Some may say it’s inhumane to force people off the streets and into treatment, but I think it’s more inhumane to keep people on the streets.”
I wonder if a large part of our fear/revulsion about institutionalizing mentally ill or addicted people relates to the iconic 1975 movie “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In that story, we saw a personification of institutional maltreatment in the character of Nurse Ratched. She was evil incarnate as she made her vulnerable mentally ill patients bow to her selfish whims to the point of dehumanization.
Falling on the heels of the shutdown (in the 1960’s) of many state institutions for the mentally ill, this movie confirmed our worst thoughts about government care for this segment of our population. But there was a largely unexplored alternative point of view.
President John F. Kennedy’s vision for caring for the mentally ill in communities where they lived never fully came to fruition due to his untimely death. Kennedy championed a “new approach to mental illness and to mental retardation.” He wanted to use federal resources to stimulate state, local and private action. “When carried out, reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability. Emphasis on prevention, treatment and rehabilitation will be substituted for a desultory interest in confining patients in an institution to wither away.”
Custodial isolation vs. open warmth of community concern. Confining vs. liberating. Seems like an inspirational vision, right?
But removing needy, vulnerable, and weak people from state hospitals without community support didn’t make the abuse go away. Writing in the book “No Way Home,” Christopher Rufo stated that closing brick-and-mortar mental institutions has produced an “invisible asylum” of the street, the jail and the emergency room. “Slaying the old monster of the state asylums,” he wrote “has created a new monster in its shadow; one that maintains the appearance of freedom, but condemns a large population of the mentally ill to a life of misery.” He stated that “local government provides enough to meet an outward standard of compassion but not enough to alter the trajectories of the homeless.”
I think that the government is an essential piece of aiding the homeless. Government has the influence, finances, organizing capability, personnel, communications, transportation, enforcement, housing and even some programs to greatly help the homeless. Government is necessary, but not sufficient, to help many homeless make the transition back to productive participation in society.
Homelessness is an endemic social problem. It doesn’t begin or end with government rules or programs. It is caused by inherent community cultural values and perspectives that see some people as more worthy than others; that allow for interpersonal estrangement and the ignoring of others in dire need.
Some time ago, Supervisor Desmond invited our community to participate with the county government in addressing the challenge of homelessness. His comment was prescient and wise. Our town must become part of the solution itself because the government doesn’t have the time or staying power that individual volunteers do. You and I have the time and opportunity to engage homeless people fairly frequently, even if only for a few moments. We can personally start them on a road to healing.
Homelessness is more than a matter of a stable roof over your head. It is a matter of social, even familial, inclusion. While on a San Diego street mission, I learned from a homeless woman about the root problem. Bernice told me that her homeless peers watched over her, protected her and helped to feed and clothe her. She said, “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless!”
I was shocked, to say the least. She had turned my definition of homelessness on its head. For Bernice, “home” is relational, not a matter of shelter. From that point on, in my dealings with the homeless, I have strived to establish relationships with those that are open to it (not all are!) I have slowly come to realize that homeless people need social inclusion as much as food and water. They want to be seen and acknowledged, not condemned, ignored or corrected.
Like us, they want to have a purpose for their lives instead of just scraping by to exist each day. Rather than pointing homeless people toward solutions for their immediate, perceived needs, we need to walk alongside people who are in the darkest period of their lives. We need to welcome them into our community and encourage them to risk stepping out into community life with our help.
So rather than “point” homeless people to services, housing and employment, we can walk with them to help them acquire documents, make appointments, transport, advise, employ and befriend them. Instead of being a burden on society, formerly homeless people are a valuable resource for reaching out to those still living on the street. Who better to tell others that they can make it off the streets too?