Monday, April 08, 2019

It’s Upon Us To Figure This Out

Our school is located in the Fremont neighborhood, just north of downtown Seattle. It’s a thriving community of small businesses, artists, and technology, a great place for families. It is also a great place, apparently, for some of our city’s homeless population, or at least a subsection of it that has been forced to live in their vehicles and tents. It’s a problem in every American city (and I’ve traveled enough to know that our nation is not alone, having encountered similar circumstances almost everywhere I’ve been). These poor people are often blamed for creating health hazards, engaging in drug use, and committing petty crimes. Having gotten to know many of them over the years, I know that this is true for some of them, but not most, which makes it an unfair brush with which to paint them all.

Recently, the city removed a tent encampment not far from the school. I, and others, were worried that this was just a ploy to move them along to some other less visible place, but the city officials with whom I spoke, which was later confirmed to me by the police officers who were charged with keeping the peace as it happened, assured me that they offered beds to every one of them, even though many, the cops said, had refused. There has been an attendant increase in foot patrols in the neighborhood. I’ve seen officers handing out business cards with contact information for services, gently trying to persuade people to take advantage, even offering to make the calls for them. I heard some people refusing so I know this is not a made-up excuse.

A couple weeks ago, one of our local homeless population, a man I’ve known for years now, had a significant mental health crisis in the alleyway behind our school. I could see him from the classroom window: he was shouting, cursing, jumping about, and seemed to be hell bent on breaking things. I know that he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and I also know that most of the time he refuses to take the medications that his family sends from Southern California where he is from. During his more lucid moments, I’ve had long discussions with him about all sort of topics, from politics to science to literature. He’s well-read and articulate, but then there are moments like these. I don’t think he has ever intentionally injured anyone, but he does engage in property damage and his behavior can be frightening. He’s not the only one. There is another man who is also likely schizophrenic who is even more of a menace these days, although again, I have not heard of him being violent toward people, only property. My point is that from where I sit, it’s not the “homeless” who are causing the problems in Fremont, but rather these few mentally ill folks who, for whatever reason, have been left to fend for themselves.

I’ve gone out of my way to create personal relationships with the men (and they’re mostly men), in the spirit of “connect to redirect,” and even as it seems to mostly “work” it’s nothing more than a stop-gap solution. Not long ago, I discussed the problem of these mentally ill men with the current president of our neighborhood chamber of commerce. I had expected him to be a big fan of the city’s recent activity, but he was as torn as me: on the one hand we have a right to a safe community, while on the other these men, our fellow citizens have their rights. We could jail them, but their actual crimes are minor. We could institutionalize them or force drugs on them, but again, that doesn’t sit well with most of us. We may offer them beds, even homes, but many of them are incapable of caring for themselves, let alone an apartment. In other words, we, as a society are at a loss for what to do.

I’m currently in Athens, Greece, where there are, like back home, people sleeping in doorways, many of them mentally ill. Over dinner last night we found ourselves discussing what we could do. We tried to imagine a world in which, money being no object, there is a solution. What if we could provide these mentally ill people with the choice to leave their life on the streets for a place apart, where no one was forcing them to be medicated, where the police do not hassle them, where they could continue to self-medicate under the supervision of medical professionals, where their drive to destroy was accommodated. What if it was a place where mental health professionals were readily available, where food and housing were provided. There is something creepy about this idea, I’ll admit, something like the artificiality of the “Truman Show,” but is it any creepier than what we’re doing now? And honestly, I can’t imagine it costing society more than what it is costing us now. 

Maybe this isn’t the solution, but just sweeping human beings along is also no solution. What I do know is that we need to be talking about this, every day, with everyone we know. We can’t just sit around blaming others, which is mostly what we are doing these days. We cannot continue to conflate mental illness with homelessness — they are distinct problems that require distinct solutions. We cannot simply wait for our elected representatives or philanthropists or some other genius hero to do it for us. This is our problem and it must be our solution. There must be a better way and being democratic societies, it is upon us to figure this out. 

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you! 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: