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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Men.. Two Homeless Men

Dogs In Need; People In Need:

Denver 7 posted a picture of a dog left outside in the cold by its owners on its Facebook page a few days ago; (picture copied above left).  That picture generated thousands of comments; thousands of shares.  People's hearts went out to the little doggie who did look forlorn and cold lying by a patio door.

But some people brought up the issue of homeless people: 
So stupid, worried about an animal, but not for humans.... there's many homeless people you dont do nothing about it, (sic) but you see a dog and you people cried about it..!!!!

To which some of the same people concerned about the doggie replied:

"The difference between a homeless person and this dog is that a homeless person has a CHOICE to go to a homeless shelter. This dog was put out by the very shelter that took him you priorities (sic) .... This dog couldn't open the door to find that shelter when a homeless person can walk into any number of shelters in the city.... And anyone of you complaining about a homeless person being out on the street pick one up and take him him and out from the cold.... This dog didn't have a choice .... By being left outside his choice was taken away"

And this from a library worker:

"Most of the ones I see on a daily basis in our library, have choices, they're able bodied, of sound mind and body, and choose to sit around on computers all day long. So yes, they have choices, many make bad ones. 14 years of library service, I have seen a lot"

Sorry, I just don't buy it. Most people are homeless after a succession of issues and problems.  It's hard to say that the plight of someone who is homeless should be demeaned or diminished just because that person had some bad breaks or made some bad choices. We all make bad choices; many people have bad breaks, but most of us don't wind up homeless. And many, perhaps most, of the homeless are mentally ill.

They can support themselves and get a job?  As I wrote above, many are mentally ill.  Some may still be able-bodied, but that doesn't mean they can get hired, hold down a job, and s
upport themselves. Who is going to hire a homeless person?  The idea that most homeless people can all just get jobs if they only wanted to is absurd.

Many want to think that homeless people have a "choice" and can go to a shelter or other place of warmth whenever they wish. This is not always true. Many homeless people don't like or adapt to shelters or they fear them. Many shelters are not safe. Many have their possessions in some kind of cart and they fear their possessions getting stolen if they stay in a shelter. Many shelters don't have enough room for all of the homeless, particularly in very cold weather.  I could go on and on.  And someone in a shelter is really STILL homeless; as they have no place to call home.

In my opinion, a homeless person sleeping in the snow or the cold is almost as helpless as a dog left out in the cold. We shouldn't assume that someone who is homeless has that much "choice". If they had that much choice, they probably wouldn't be homeless.

Here's my story about two men who wound up homeless. I knew both of them before they were homeless; when they had families, homes, jobs, hopes, aspirations.

The Artist

He was a friend of a friend and I originally met him in the early 1980's when he came to our home for a casual party. He was an interesting guy; he considered himself an artist and he had a part-time job with a Chicago opera company as someone who helped the lighting crew with their set ups. He was fascinated with marionettes, built them out of paper mache, large puppets 3-4 feet tall, and he put on marionette shows for adults.

His parents were still living, and he lived in a coachhouse on their property. His home was filled with articles, books, papers, art works, prints, and he was very, very proud of his collection. He never had a girlfriend; someone said that he was gay during the days when there was a much greater stigma to being gay than there is now.  He wrote a newsletter about happenings among his friends, and he sent the newsletter out to his friends every month or two.

When his parents died, he inherited their old house free and clear. But it was in need of repair, he still had to pay property taxes, and he needed to keep the utilities on. And his part-time job had gone away by that time; not sure why. He was always going to sell some of his books, and his friends often gave him a hundred or two hundred bucks in exchange for some books. (His friends generally didn't need the books; but it was a way of helping him out.)

The man wasn't disabled in any obvious way, but, even if he was, he didn't have any way of getting health care, he probably wouldn't have qualified for SSDI or SSI. He was kind of shy, not really good at promoting himself, also a bit "odd".

As often happens when people start having problems, they just kind of "drift away". They stop calling, they stop responding to calls, people stop calling them. They may lose their phone service.  This was before the Internet, so it's unclear if his situation would have been better had he been able to reach out to people.  But many people hide behind the Internet.. They are hurting and struggling, but their Facebook friends can never tell.

So that's what happened to the Artist. People would say, "How is E. doing?" and others would say that they hadn't heard from him; they hoped he was OK. Well, he wasn't and finally he either contacted someone or someone managed to contact him.. but it was too late. He had lost his house due to unpaid property taxes. A friend contacted a lawyer, but there was not much they could do other than to buy some time so that he could possibly sell some of his beloved books. But he was more than just a book lover; by that time he was a hoarder, and his house was actually filled bottom-to-top with books and papers. His utilities had been turned off at some time. He was in a very bad place. A few friends pitched in and found him a place to live, but without ongoing income, he lost that. But no one knew as he had no phone. And he didn't tell anyone.

He was in his late 50s or early 60's by that time. Finally someone saw him.. riding the El trains. He was homeless; he hung out in libraries during the day, and rode the El train at night. Not sure where he got the money for the El. He also had a very bad pain in his stomach but he couldn't get it looked at. Someone took him to county hospital over his protests and it turned out that he had advanced stomach cancer. I honestly cannot remember how long he lived after that, but it wasn't long.

It's easy to say that people should "work"; a lot harder for many of them to find or keep jobs. And many people who are struggling just can't bring themselves to reach out to friends or even family until it is too late. They hate being a burden, they feel guilty. Others are angry and rebellious. By the time someone is in their 50's or 60's, the door to working is often closed, even if the person isn't officially "disabled".

The Teacher

Unlike the Artist who was always a bit "odd" and never had enough income to support himself, the Teacher was personable, funny, handsome; everybody loved him. He loved canoeing and camping and often had a kayak or canoe strapped to the roof of his old van. He was the father of 4 kids and was actually the "househusband" as his kids were young; his wife was a doctor. He started substitute teaching at his kids' school and then entered a teacher training program. That's when I met him. He wanted to get his teacher's certificate and start teaching when his youngest son was ready for full-day grade school. He did a lot of substitute teaching, as kids loved him and his oversized outgoing personality ... and he loved working with kids.

But then a few bad things happened.  He met with his brother and sister whom he hadn't seen for years.. and he missed class for a few days after that. He was "sick". We were told that he was seriously depressed and could not finish the last year of teacher training with us; he'd have to pick it up later. Then, while he was struggling with depression (and, as we discovered later, alcoholism) his wife started an affair with a friend... a woman. It was devastating to him, as he knew the woman and considered her a friend. He didn't go out of the house for months, and eventually he and his wife divorced.

He was able to pick up the pieces, however, and got an apartment and a settlement from the divorce.  He did finish his teacher training. But again something went wrong. He was in a full-time sub sitaution, subbing for someone who was out the rest of the year, and he seemed to be shoe-in for a full-time job the next year, but he hit a kid. He just lost it. This man who loved kids just lost it. No more subbing, no more "certain" job offer. His teaching career came to a screeching halt.

He got a job driving a truck, but the loss of his teaching prospects really sent him over the edge.. again.  And then he also "dropped out"; nobody was quite sure what happened to him, his phone number was disconnected, mail was returned. Then someone saw him on the streets: Apparently he hadn't been able to hang onto the truck driving job; he had gone through his divorce settlement; and he was homeless. But he didn't want any pity; he didn't want any help. Friends knew the area in which he hung out, but he didn't want to see anybody. He was hostile to people he had known for years. One of his very close friends told me "I wanted to find him, to talk to him.. He could have stayed with me and I could have helped him." His ex-wife heard of his plight; she reached out to him through friends, but he spurned their offers.  Someone did give him his ex-wife's business card. He put it in the pocket of his coat.

One early spring morning, someone in the woods near the northern city in which he lived, just a few miles from the big house he had lived in with his wife and kids, spotted a man.. a dead man. The coroner thought the man had been dead for a couple of months; dead from hypothermia when the temperature in the area was below freezing night after night. The police found no identification on the man, just a business card. When they called the number, they were able to identify at least this one homeless man. It was the Teacher.  He had held onto his ex-wife's business card for a year or two. Maybe he intended on calling her but just couldn't do it. But the friends and family whose help he had refused many times in those last years of his life were able to bury him and hold a memorial service for him. He was 57.

Every Homeless Person Has a Story

The story of every homeless person is probably filled with missed opportunities, bad choices, and, often, mental or physical illnesses or addictions.  Most of them will die long before their time unless they can somehow get off of the streets.  Most of those sleeping on the streets or in the forest preserves have as little choice as the doggie shivering in the cold.

What should we do about the problem of those who are homeless?

There is no easy answer; and each situation is different.  There are homeless children, homeless women, homeless families, homeless men.  People in shelters may not freeze, but they are still homeless; drifting for days and weeks and months.  Shelters only provide temporary relief from the problem of homelessness; people in shelters are still homeless.

A final comment from someone at the Denver 7 site:

People saying that homeless people have a choice have no clue (as to) what they are talking about.  Yes, there are homeless shelters but these shelters are (often) beyond capacity...  Businesses kick out the homeless because we "fortunate ones" don't want to see some dirty homeless person in a restaurant or the shopping mall.  So.. this dog had no choice and it is indeed abuse, but equally, homeless people (more often than not) don't have a choice either.  Quit being so insensitive to your fellow man and love them as much as we love dogs.

1 comment:

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