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Tuesday, November 20 , 2018, 5:04 pm | Fair 66º


Ken Williams: We Treat Our Trash Better Than the Discarded Citizens We Call the Homeless

Her murky brown eyes were turned inward, searching. Periodically, they cleared, only to become fogged over again as if shifting cataracts allowed her to play hide and seek with the bustling crowd at the Farmers Market.

Her long brown hair hung in a tangled web down her back. It had been some time since a comb brushed through it. I watched as again, her eyes briefly flared to life sweeping those around her with intensity, only to slowly dim again. Was it the absence of a threat that she failed to see, or the lack of human connectedness that allowed it to do so? Despair carved a soft sadness into her face as if asking: Where had her life gone so terribly wrong? When and how did she become invisible to those around her? How bad of a person must she be to be punished and banished so?

No one paid attention to this young woman who sat on the curb, imprisoned alone in a “glass bell jar” among the bustle of the market. People like her, shabbily dressed, gaunt from hunger and with stress lines dug deeply into bronzed skin were simply too common to notice anymore. Perhaps it is simpler to ignore them than to ask unanswerable questions about a decades-long economic war against the poor and homeless. It is also a societal one against those who suffer mental illness.

In small and large cities across the land, these internal refugees can be found securing their meals out of trash cans. Those heading home to the security of their houses, condos and apartments as night approaches, witness the mentally ill homeless nervously scurrying about, trying to find a safe place to lie down for the night. They also seek seclusion from the prying eyes of others. But this isolation comes with a price for they put themselves at risk of becoming victims to the creatures of the night who prey on them and their vulnerabilities. Homeless women, many of whom suffer from the ravages of mental illness, must also fend off the rapists and brutal men with hardened fists who hunt them like ravenous predators. Some are also mothers who must either take their children into overcrowded shelters — some of which offer their own layers of hell — or risk the dangers of the streets.

“Go elsewhere,” some plead. But where is that? Tell me which community hangs a welcome sign for the mentally ill homeless? Or the laid-off worker, the displaced homemaker or the damaged war veteran? The superfluous elderly or the throwaway physically disabled? Instead of addressing the root causes of poverty and the devastating cutbacks to the safety net that at one time helped those without, including the mentally ill, communities try ever more creative and punitive methods to punish and drown them in a sea of infractions and misdemeanors, to make life so unpleasant, so downright miserable, that they will simply pack up and move on to another community. Anywhere but here is the operating paradigm.

In older times, the term “Ship of Fools” came into being. This referred to the practice in Europe of rounding up the mentally ill, putting them aboard ships and sending them to the next harbor; again, anywhere but here. In the 1970s and ‘80s, we called it “Greyhound Therapy” — the dumping of the mentally ill to the next county via, you guessed it, a Greyhound bus.

As I watched the young woman, I saw how the stresses of being a mentally ill homeless person had aged her, until it was impossible to see the mid-20s of her age. But when I approached and spoke to her, a sudden transformation brought forth a priceless smile that gave her back some of her stolen youth. I tried imagining what it must feel like if she had been my daughter? How the heartache of a loving parent caught up in this particular Dante’s Hell must be unbearable. Would they even know if she were alive? Would they get cryptic phone messages in the middle of the night? Or perhaps postcards from parts unknown that added another bleeding wound to their heart? Would cold calls from police and shelters map a life gone tragically wrong? And would her parents be desperately dependent upon the generosity of the hearts of total strangers to offer their daughter a warm meal, or something as simple as a safe bed, or as precious as a smile and a kind word?

This young woman disappeared a few days after my encounter with her, yet I cannot forget her. She joined the diaspora of the discarded and the throwaways of our modern times. Unlike the plastic that we collect and recycle, homeless in general and the mentally ill in particular are allowed to perish on our streets — unwanted, uncared for and unloved — except by their grieving mothers and fathers. Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and strangers moved by the blight of those damaged in hearts and minds.

The young woman’s soulful eyes, the despair and pain captured within, float before me, when quietness ushers in contemplation and memories, of questions of the nature of spiritual values and what it means to exist in what is often an inhumane world.

Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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