I was standing on a street corner in an urban Southern California neighborhood waiting for the street light to turn green. Next to me was a woman who was obviously agitated and mumbling to herself. Her clothes were tattered, and although she was probably in her 30s, the deep creases on her face and her leathery skin on her arms and hands made her look more like 60.
Clearly, she was homeless.
“My mom is a Mother F***er! She needs to die! I hate her! You ruined my life, Mom!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, staring into the sky. Most of the people around her started walking away, fearful that her verbal abuse might turn physical.
I turned toward her, thinking I might be able to calm her down.
“What are you looking at?!” she shouted at me. The veins in her neck popped out from the strain of her screeching voice. “Are you from the government? They are after me too!”
Dressed in a suit, I was not in a position to perform outreach and feared my professional appearance would immediately generate distrust. So, I continued on to my downtown meeting without engaging her.
To this day, I am still troubled by the state of this woman’s life. Years ago, we were helping people who lost their jobs and had no place to go. Today, we are encountering more and more people who not only struggle with homelessness, but serious mental health issues as well.
Sadly, these individuals flounder on the streets, haunted by abusive memories, hindered by physical ailment, with nowhere to sleep but behind a trash bin or under a bush. Like the woman on the street corner, more people living on America’s streets suffer from mental instability. While we try to offer them a meal, a bed, or even an apartment, their mental state often prevents them from accepting any help.
So, they continue to sleep on the sidewalk, while the neighborhood freaks out because “crazy homeless people have invaded.” Sometimes the police are called. Yet these people are not breaking the law by being homeless. Those of us who are homeless caregivers become frustrated because even if these individuals are screaming at passersby, they need help. Unfortunately, even they are unable to acknowledge their own needs.
In the mean time, our neighbors suffer on the streets.
I’ve talked with homeless rights experts, public advocate attorneys, and public policy makers about how we can help these homeless individuals suffering from mental illness. If that woman on the street corner was my sister or mother, our family would try to pick her up and take her home. She is hurting, and needs a roof over her head. However, the laws prevent us from such actions.
“It is called kidnapping,” says the lawyer, when I tell him that I would force her to get help.
Attorneys tell me that she either needs to be a threat to society or herself before law enforcement, or anyone, can force her to seek help. Since she knows where she will sleep tonight, doesn’t really bother people (other than screaming at them), and does not appear to be in grave condition, she is left on the streets.
I contend, however, that even if she is not an immediate threat in the next few weeks or months, the woman is at risk of death. The likelihood of some sort of violence against her on the streets should be a real concern.
But our society has created laws that basically stop of us from helping her.
I know the justification for such civil rights laws. We are a free, civilized, rights-oriented society that protects individuals from government or other ill-willed citizens from acting against them, and I am proud to be part of such a nation.
But shame on us for allowing our mentally unstable neighbors who live on our streets to fall through legal loop holes, simply so that we can prove we are a just society.
We need to make changes in order to save the lives of thousands of Americans who struggle with both mental illness and living on the streets.
Perhaps we should loosen up the conservatorship laws that allow us to handle the affairs of a person who is incapable on his or her own? Or perhaps, we should seek to implement more mental health conservatorships as a solution to house people?
To me, a just society is one that provides housing for everyone, even those whose mental health issues prevent them from acknowledging that they need help