Saturday, April 14, 2007

Stories of the down and out

The last few weeks, I've been a little distracted because of interviews and stories I've been doing. It's part of a whole series on the local homeless I've been writing for the paper.

There are those who would like to bus the street people to a camp somewhere, or maybe force-march them to Montana, as long as it removes them. It's hard to dehumanize someone, though, once you've seen her or his human face, and that's what I've been trying to do -- show the face of humanity through these people, and show the forces that bring people to homelessness.

The first few segments have run, and there are a few more to go, already written up. The response to what's been published has been positive.

These people have poured their hearts out to me. Tales of abuse, alcohol, drugs, violence, mental illness. Homes, families, careers, dignity, all lost.

Some have overcome years of alcohol and drug abuse, and rebuilt their lives, and now have responsible positions in the community. They've opened up about things done to them, and things they've done. I admire their courage, for it's always risky to talk on the record about some of these things, but they did, giving courageous witnesses.

One young man determined to break free of family patterns called homelessness a pit with very high walls.

Some I talked with had been plucked off the streets into rehab, and have won some battles with their demons, but the war is not over. They're still in the trenches. You can still see the demons lurking, waiting for an opportunity to regain control. God bless and help these people.

A common ingredient for success seems to be some kind of faith, and some sort of epiphany that God didn't intend them to be living the way they had been, and was calling them to a new life. "Call it the 'higher power' spoken of in AA, or God, whatever you will," said one man.

One man told me he was walking down the street after a week's binge, filled with self-loathing and rage against the world, when he had an epiphany. He looked up into the sky and realized, he had to choose between good and evil. It was suddenly that simple for him.

For another, it was the earth-shattering realization he had thrown away everything. He had sunk to the point he had the option of either rehab or jail. He began to realize the hurt he had done others. All this, along with friends of faith determined to help him into a better life, made the difference.

Not that gaining sobriety was easy -- another common theme I heard from those who had reintegrated into the community was realizing they couldn't do it alone -- but the will to it was suddenly there.

That's why providing encouragement, rehabilitation (sometimes over and over again) and a supportive community is so important. We can't just step over or around people as if they aren't there, or bus them somewhere else. We can't offer moralizing or a sermon to someone whose belly is empty. We don't have to try and convert anyone, just be there. Feed the hungry; clothe the naked; provide shelter. Provide assistance to deal with demons.

The stories of the people I talked with have been swirling around in my head; they have remained with me.

We have to start treating our homeless and our mentally-ill better. An already poor system of mental-health care here in Florida has gotten worse the past few years. There aren't nearly enough beds in state psychiatric hospitals. There aren't enough emergency shelter beds, or long-term beds for those who can't look out for themselves. The waiting list for residential rehab for substance abusers is often too long (my brother faced this). Case-management services for outpatient treatment has been cut severely.

Of course, the homeless aren't a constituency. They are not pretty, as I mentioned in an earlier post; some are bizarre, some are downright scary in their mental illness, and more are obnoxious. Few vote or donate to political campaigns. They don't have lobbyists walking the halls of the Legislature. Nobody's made much noise on their behalf except a few bleeding-heart liberals who are easily dismissed. And nobody wants the homeless or services to attract more of them in their neighborhood.

I do think the tide is starting to turn. Thank God, and thank God for the ministers who devote themselves to helping the down and out.

As one minister to the street people said, if we're going to call ourselves Christians, we have to start acting like we're Christians.


Ann said...

Elizabeth talks about some of these things in her blog today - Hope is the key to the man who talks to her.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Pat, in our town, we have no homeless people. The homeless are given a one-way ticked to a larger city which has a homeless shelter and sent on their way. We have a few folks who show up at our church for help; one woman obviously has mental health problems and the other has one leg and is blind in one eye, but I don't think either is homeless.

What you're doing is great. You're letting them tell their stories and treating them with respect. God bless you.