The following is an except from Voices from the Street: Truths About Homeless from Sisters of The Road. Sisters of The Road is a Portland, Ore. non-profit café that serves low cost meals and offers job training as well as support to parents and children.
Harris was an early customer. When he walked in the door without his mental health under control, he’d talk in a different voice to himself or anyone who would listen, and would do things out of the ordinary. Once Harris was sitting at the counter with another gentleman. Harris lit a match and held it to this man’s coat. Immediately I said, “Harris, remember you’re in Sisters Of The Road. Blow the match out! You cannot set someone’s coat on fire in Sisters Of The Road.” He looked at me, blew the match out, and was “back.”
No matter how wounded people are, we ask them to be accountable. Elsewhere, someone’s behavior would immediately send people to the phone to dial 911. We speak the truth instead: name the behavior, call on them to remember they’re in Sisters, and ask them to hold themselves together and come back to a place where they won’t hurt themselves or others. I’m not saying it’s always successful; rarely, someone has crossed the line and become hurtful. But the constant practice of holding people accountable has created an environment where people dealing with mental health issues truly feel respected and safe.
A great number of our narrators suffered from depression, mental illness, and emotional problems. A third of them identified themselves as having a mental health issue or reported being diagnosed with one. Naturally this is a huge physical health risk, especially if they are psychotic or delusional while living on the streets. A number of narrators commented how dangerous the streets were for the mentally ill and how inadequate the services were for them.
Stan: “But the system itself, we’re trying to look at rehabilitation, we’re not looking at people trying to keep us down and lower our self-esteem. You walk into a food stamp office, I feel that I should be cared about. Show me concern. If you burn out from your job, move on, give it to somebody else that cares. But don’t just sit there and take it out on me or what Joe Blow did before I came in there, you know. You’re just being treated in society, sometimes you’re already down. You don’t need anybody else beating you up. You know, show me what I need to do. And if you can’t, lead me in the right direction. And I’m seeing a lot of that not happening. There are a lot of times when you feel like you just want to go to a park bench somewhere and just sit, and never wake up again.”
When skilled and appropriate assistance is provided, the results can be effective.
Jennifer: “[I have problems with] depression and anger management and stuff like that, and I am in groups that show you how to kind of not call it, but kind of watch what you do, and you are not as apt to have anger things flash out at people like I have… I have got an awful lot out of my therapist. She has got one-on-one with me and she also is my group leader.”
The challenges faced by those experiencing homelessness make difficult or even impossible those tasks most of society sees as routine. The difficulty of escaping homelessness conflicts with the desire to escape. Anxiety, frustration, depression, and other negative emotional and mental states are formidable enemies added to existing obstacles.
Kevin: “You are already under pressure here. When you are homeless like that, and it is a day-to-day thing about how you are going to make this appointment or get your clothes washed, or just it is a constant battle to try to keep your head above water and stay clean. And then, add to that the lack of housing and the places to sleep outside all are gone, you know, all those murders and all the crack and the violence on the streets, it is just, you know, it is hard. No wonder some of those people drink and do drugs, you know? People think, ‘Why don’t they just get out of it.’ Well, until you have experienced it, you cannot really judge it. It is like an evil monster.
“Somehow when you become homeless, it does something to your psyche, no matter how strong you are, it just does something to you that, the longer you are there the harder it is to get away from it. I wish I could explain it. It is beyond words, but it is real, I know it is real.”
By Jessica P. Morrell and Genny Nelson, Street News Service
Voices from the Street: Truths About Homelessness from Sisters Of The Road, by Jessica P. Morrell, can be ordered online at www.graysunshine.com.
Reprinted excerpt, © Street News Service: www.street-papers.org