Letter: I saw someone

No one chooses to become an addict or have a mental illness

I saw someone

This week I saw a sleeping man sitting on cold, wet concrete, his back pressed tight against the building as the rain poured off the roof. I saw a young woman holding a broken umbrella over her drenched head; digging through a garbage can. I saw a tall, skinny man, his feet bare, wrapped in a thin blanket, waving a chicken leg as he walked in and out of traffic talking to himself. I saw an elderly woman staggering; so intoxicated she fell into the blackberry brambles beside the road.

In the grocery store a woman complained about seeing more and more of this and ‘no one is doing anything.’ Last spring, the church on the corner put up a 6 foot fence, ‘at great cost,’ because someone found a needle in the playground area. I pointed out the two daycares in the same block that do needle checks every morning instead of building higher fences. I asked if they’d consulted anyone working in harm reduction and mentioned the local ‘sharps’ teams but they’d never heard of it. Later, they cut down trees and shrubs so no one would linger at the front of the church. That side was left fenceless. Undefended, unprotected, vulnerable.

Imagine yourself without a home, car, or money for anything you might need. Your possessions are limited to what you can carry. If it’s raining, there’s nowhere to go to dry off, use the bathroom or wash your hands. If you sit in a doorway or on a bench, you’ll be moved on, sometimes threatened, usually shamed. You’re drenched and cold. Someone has given you a blanket but it’s soaked. Do you carry it around all day? Most dumpsters are locked and it won’t fit into any trashcan. So you leave it, along with whatever else you’ve been carrying. Now your load is lighter but you’re still cold and wet. Maybe you’re exhausted from walking all night to keep warm. Maybe your feet are covered in blisters from constant chaffing of shoes that don’t quite fit. Your hands are swollen and painful from exposure. You’re well beyond hunger. When was the last time you had a meal? Maybe part of someone’s sandwich or a four-day-old doughnut; definitely not something hot. If you’re thirsty where do you get a drink? If someone gives you clean, dry clothes, where do you go to change? Where do you sleep when the shelters are full? If you’re a woman, where will you go to be safe? Maybe you’ll take a ride with a stranger just to keep warm. Maybe he’ll be kind and buy you a burger and a pop. Maybe he’ll beat you. Maybe he’ll offer to get you high in exchange for sex.

These are some things I’ve heard: homeless people aren’t even human. They’re threatening our children and businesses. They just need to get a job. I’m not giving them money so they can buy drugs. How can they stand to live like that? They’re disgusting, they make a mess wherever they go and we have to clean it up with our tax dollars. If they’re putting needles in their arms they deserve to die. They should move them out of the downtown area; people don’t want to see it. I don’t feel safe anymore. Who wants to see someone covered in scabs when they go to the bank? My real estate agent says a shelter in this area will lower my property values. When is the government going to do something about this?

Now imagine you grew up with a violent alcoholic father and/or a schizophrenic mother. Imagine you were molested repeatedly before you were 10 years old. Imagine you grew up hearing awful comments about your family and were bullied at school for the way you talk, the color of your skin or the shape of your eyes. Imagine being raised by a single parent with undiagnosed, untreated depression and you lived in a dirty trailer without enough food or proper plumbing. What if both your parents were in jail or one of them OD’d in front of you? What if you were taken from your home, put into ‘protective services,’ and your family had to fight for years to get you back. In the meantime you lived in foster care; moved from home to unfamiliar home. Imagine you grew up with no clean, running water or a serious head injury or fetal alcohol syndrome. Think about what it would be like to run away from home at age 12, or eat Betty Crocker icing because that’s all there was in the cupboard. Imagine your dad betting and losing you in a poker game when you were nine or smoking meth with your mom at seven years old. Can you imagine?

We must take more responsibility to educate ourselves about the effects of trauma. We must be willing to look at each suffering person as an individual, as a human being. We must not look away. We must stop stigmatizing those that are different and ask ourselves, what do we get out of blaming the person who is on the ground? We need to be willing to talk about this ‘problem,’ with the intention to understand and the desire for change.

No one chooses to become an addict or have a mental illness. No one decides to be homeless. Losing everything you worked hard for because of an accident at work, losing your family because of complex trauma and addiction and losing your mental health after years of abuse; these are not choices. We all need love, compassion and connection and we must work together to give and receive more of it. This coronavirus has taught me the truth of real medicine. This is the only cure and we can choose it.

Ellen Mitchell