I know a woman. I would like to tell you her story; her story has a moral lesson in it. Let’s call her Ann.
Ann is not yet 70. Most of her history and personal detail are unknown to me. Her exact age is a mystery and not important to me. I am sure she qualifies for any senior discount that I have heard of. Where she came from and how she arrived in her present situation, is likewise a blank. I do know her ethnicity, but I am not going to divulge how that knowledge came to me. It isn’t important to this story and matters only to her and her family wherever they may be.
What I do know is that she has been a member of the Justa Center for longer than I have been volunteering there. I think that was in 2007, but unlike Ann, I am 70. Bear that fact in mind when I relate details of my history. Ann is fairly regular in her attendance at the Justa Center, but she does disappear for varying lengths of time.
One of the first things I realized about Ann is that unlike most of the other female members she never stays in a shelter of any kind. There are other women that manage on the streets for short periods of time, but most of them manage to find a place in a shelter sooner or later. Ann usually stayed close to the Justa Center building with a shopping cart or suitcase of one sort or another. So, when she doesn’t sign in for a while and I don’t see her and her belongings when I arrive on Friday before 7:00 am, I wonder about her, and then I say a short prayer for her.
Several years ago, she didn’t show up for awhile and I inquired about her. I was told that housing had been found for her and that she was off the streets. Later, she turned up again. The center found housing for her a second time. Again, she returned to the street close to the Justa Center. Periodically, she still vanishes for short periods and then reappears.
After 3:00 pm when the Justa Center closes, there are no public toilets in the area. No private ones either, come to think of it. Ann, like most people of my age find it difficult to go 16 hours without urinating or defecating. To do so is a tall order even for 20 somethings. The police notice her, then take her in. She is incarcerated for a time and is released again. Meanwhile her possessions have disappeared –the police or the jail system is not into storing shopping carts. Ann, of course, knows where to obtain clothing and so she does after release. Then she returns to the Just Center. Until the cops run her in again.
I believe any reasonable person could look at Ann’s history and spot the fact that she could benefit from a mental health intervention. Even in Arizona, people such as Ann used to be cared for and treated by the state. That ended some time back when the legislature decided that it was too expensive to do so. That was long before the latest round of cost cutting. In Ann’s case, a psychiatrist has determined that she is perfectly normal and not eligible for any government funded care.
Last Friday, I saw Ann ironing her newest outfit. Ann is quite a clothes horse, despite her being homeless. I often admire her outfits and sometimes notice her before and after a change. Some are obviously just a costume and rather fanciful, but I like them, too. My wife, Barb, also has a number of outfits that I like. The selecting and wearing of cute or elegant clothing is a female trait that I often envy. Most of us men lack the knowledge or desire to emulate it. Ann has a well developed sense of style and makes the most of her limited means. Marian, my fellow volunteer on Fridays, tells me that she loves it when Ann asks for safety pins because she knows that Ann is going to be creative. Ann’s outfits are not as Hollywood elegant as, say the ball gown in “Gone With the Wind”, but they express a creative personality and I enjoy seeing Ann in them.
Now the moral. Organizations such as the Justa Center cannot prescribe medications or treat mental illness. We can attempt to help if they are homeless (and over 55 in our case) but we can do nothing about the root cause if it is a mental illness. Many of the homeless that I know have some mental impairment. Not all of them. Just as, not all the rest are drunks, drug addicts or just plain lazy. In this dog eat dog society, people that are not as well as equipped as the average often fall prey to others. Or, they just can’t compete for jobs as well. They wind up without homes or possessions and on the streets. Some come to the Justa Center just like Ann did.
Thing are getting worse in the current tough economic times. I spoke to Scott Ritchey, Executive Director, about the recent change that I had noticed in the membership of the Just Center. He told me that there were now a lot of people with diagnoses of schizophrenia on the streets because they were no longer eligible for treatment paid for by the state. He added that organizations that help the homeless are at a loss when it comes to knowing how to help or interact with people that have schizophrenia. I would think it is hard to find employment for them too. There are drugs and treatments that enable them to live as productive members of society. Untreated, they are difficult to deal with. I have a rule: I never argue or try to reason with a drunk or someone high on some other chemical. Their minds are not capable of rational thought. Untreated schizophrenics are only rational some of the time.
All societies have to deal with the homeless. They have to deal with the mentally impaired, those born with ailments or defects and those that became diseased and unable to labor later in life. Hitler had some solutions. Off them. Make sure they didn’t have offspring. For mentally and physically able men, put them in the military. For the women, get them pregnant with future Aryan warriors. Include the others with Jews as undesirable and place them in concentration camps. The secular government and religious establishment of the society Jesus lived in mostly just ignored them, which often meant death or a life of begging. Prostitution was a good, maybe only, alternative for women.
Arizona, the state I live, in appears to be adopting first century society in Israel as a model. I suppose that is better than the adopting the Third Reich’s model, but leaves a lot to be desired. There is a fallacy in the thinking that the state government saves money by not paying for the homeless, mentally ill or other undesirables that don’t pay taxes. Unemployed people don’t have health care. If they become ill, with diabetes for instance, where do they go? County hospital, in Maricopa County is one. Where do they go to the toilet? Same place Ann does. How much money has it taken to arrest, process and jail Ann in the years since I have known her? A bunch and it takes officers out of a high crime district. Arizona cut its budget, but the burden has just shifted to the local governments and organizations such as the Justa Center. Private and faith based organizations wind up feeding, housing, clothing and dealing with their everyday problems. They do this with no clue, or training, as to how to deal with many of the mentally ill. Especially schizophrenics.
The bottom line is that the in caring for Ann, schizophrenics and other mentally and physically ill people, the resources are diluted leaving less for the “hard luck” folks. The “hard luck” people are those who lived good, satisfying, productive lives until some outside event resulted in loss of job and/or home. Overwhelming medical bills, investment advisor running a ponzi scam, death of the sole bread winner, cancer or what have you. All are common stories at the Justa Center. If someone doesn’t have any teeth, you can understand why he or she can’t find a job, let alone one that pays a living wage. The solution: get them to a dentist. Grave mental illness is different. You can’t see it. Even those taking meds – if they can get them – may stop taking them. And, you don’t know, can’t guess the problem and go home at 3:00.
Ann is a nice, talented person. I like her. She deserves better. She deserves not to be an outcast. The others that see Ann in her outfits deserve better, too. It is difficult to pursue happiness sleeping on the sidewalk.