Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Homeless or Not??

The story below has been on my mind ever since it arrived via email a few weeks ago.

First, I’ll present just the story itself, which my friend thought amusing (as did all the commenters at the site). After you read it and decide for yourself what this situation is about, I’ll give my interpretation of the events. Having saved our email exchange, I’ll also give my friend’s arguments against my interpretation.

Several blogs posted this when it first appeared. Unfortunately, I no longer remember where I ran across their posts, though I do remember they drew the same conclusion as my friend, i.e., that it was simply a weird amusing story from Kansas:

A man and woman decided to give the phrase “Dumpster diving” a new twist over the weekend, crawling inside one on North Waco so they could be alone.

But while they were engaged in what Wichita police described as “an intimate moment,” they were robbed by a man armed with a pocket knife.

It all unfolded shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday in the 700 block of North Waco, police said, when the man and woman, both 44, crawled into the trash container for privacy.

A short time later, a 59-year-old man and his 64-year-old companion interrupted the couple inside the trash container.

With the older man encouraging him, the 59-year-old man pulled out a pocket knife and took shoes, jewelry and the 44-year-old man’s wallet.

Police were notified, and officers found the two suspects a short time later. The stolen property was recovered.

Okay, there you have the bare facts. I looked around for more details, but none were to be had. Thus, we’ll have to go with what we’ve got here.
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How did you read this story?

Here’s my response to my friend:

Thanks for sending this (I think). It made me immensely sad.

I felt so sorry for all of those people. They were like something out of a Flannery O’Connor short story. Degraded and such casual evil.

The couple must’ve been homeless. And the villains don’t sound any better off.

I’m not sure I’m up to reading the comments about them unless there is some compassion somewhere in them. Is there?

My friend didn’t agree with my interpretation at all. He wrote back:

I doubt that they are homeless.

Remember that the thieves got away with jewelry and a wallet.

And most homeless people don’t call the cops when something happens. If anyone was homeless, I think it was the robbers.

HomelessAs I read his reply, the time I’d spent working with homeless people came flooding back in full Technicolor. I intuitively knew that these were not only homeless people but likely from that class of homeless known as “the ambulatory mentally ill”.

The fate of these folks is the result of legislation going back to Kennedy’s era, when the enlightened elite decided to open the doors of our mental institutions and send patients back into their communities to be cared for by local folks. Of course this novel legislation, which eventually created “Community Service Boards” who would oversee the mentally ill, was another case of unfunded or underfunded federal do-goodism. If you think ObamaCare is a good idea, just look at federal mandates as they apply to CSBs. It would be funny if it didn’t damage so many people. And if the dedicated staff at your local CSB didn’t have so few resources to help the walking weirdoes (as other homeless people call them).

This report[pdf], by Kaiser, is overly optimistic in my view:

The history of deinstitutionalization began with high hopes that modern medications and modern treatments could assure people with serious mental illness a successful life in the community. By 2000, our understanding of how to do that had solidified, but it was too late for many. Times had changed. Resources had not flowed as expected. The array of programs that support people with mental illness in the community were not controlled by policymakers who fully understood mental health. Even the programs funding treatment and rehabilitation, Medicaid and Medicare, did not reflect a scientific understanding of what was needed. Housing, disability, education and employment programs were now perceived as critical, but they often were inadequately accessed by individuals with mental illness. As communities became less tolerant of the use of alcohol and drugs, people with serious mental illness who had co-occurring substance abuse issues were arrested in ever-increasing numbers.

Shakespeare tells us there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Unfortunately, deinstitutionalization missed the flood. By the time the necessary knowledge existed, political will had faded. The optimism of the 1960s regarding government ability to solve major social woes was gone. The memory of the snake-pit institutions had faded. The policy picture had become more complex than expected. Even as the great majority of people with serious mental illness succeeded in living successful, if not rich, lives in the community, a highly visible small percentage of them continued to struggle. Many more were in other institutions, such as nursing homes, jails and prisons.

I seldom had the occasion to see any of these people in the purported “great majority…with serious mental illness [who] succeeded in living successful, if not rich, lives in the community”…In fact, if a person with serious mental illness managed to bridge his way back to a real life in the community, it was, and is, big news. To suffer from serious chronic mental illness is to walk a narrow path filled with potholes.

The National Association of Mental Illness [NAMI] has support groups in every state. They are a resource for families who don’t fit the Community Services Board template, or those who have not found their local CSB helpful.

I’ve digressed here. I began with the story of the couple in the dumpster who were set upon and robbed of “jewelry and a wallet”, the possession of which led my friend to conclude they couldn’t be homeless.

Here is my reply to his contention:

I’ve worked with the homeless. They do indeed have such things as wallets and “jewelry” -- it could have been a Timex watch, he could have just cashed his SSI check. They also have backpacks with changes of clothes, books, journals, etc.

Homeless people also call the police. They’re not afraid of the law and in many cases are already known to most of the officers.

It is probably against the law to go dumpster diving. It is here, but people do it anyway. The ones behind the better grocery stores have some wonderful food in them. I know, because homeless people have shown me their “finds”, clucking their tongues over the waste. Being a frugal person myself, I’m compelled to agree.

BTW, one of the warmest places to sleep on a cold winter night when they won’t let you in to Salvation Army is the dumpster. Paper is good, but well-covered sacks of rotting garbage give off warmth as they decompose, even in the cold (it’s relative).

The bags deeper down are more protected and warmer. The only problem is that after a night’s sleep, you do smell rather fragrant, even if you thought ahead and brought your own plastic sleeping bag to cover up in.

Those homeless who are not too demented will go to the Drop In shelter to shower, change, and wash clothes. Since they usually go there to pick up their medications (which are kept where they can’t be stolen), if they don’t realize how they smell, a staff person can lead them toward the showers and washing machines and give them some coffee.

A street person usually knows when the pick-up schedule is for particular dumpsters so they’re careful which ones they use. More than one poor slob has been caught in the maw of those big trucks, though. Drivers are trained to look back as the dumpster empties.

Thus, based on my experience and the bare bones of that story, they’re homeless. One of the more unfortunate aspects of homelessness is that there is no privacy. Dumpsters provide that and they are cheaper than motels. Besides, even if they’ve just cashed their check, no motel will let them in.

That story had all the hallmarks of homelessness, including the fact that the stronger freely prey on the weaker or more vulnerable. It is interesting that my friend, who lives in a state which is crawling with the homeless, didn’t see that incident in the same light I did. But now, having worked with the homeless and the homeless mentally ill, I can't see that world the same way I did before beginning that job. Nor was the job itself what I’d prepared for:

  • driving people to their medication appointments (oops -- finding them first);
  • trying to get (overworked, understaffed) doctors to commit people before they went over the line into frank psychosis (and were picked up at three a.m., wandering naked in the cold);
  • washing foul clothing while breathing through my mouth;
  • having a pizza party (plenty of napkins!);
  • taking those who had rooms grocery shopping;
  • going for group walks and smiling back at those who stared at us;
  • warning someone that his momma was going to kick him out for the last time if he cut back on his medication again;
  • cajoling landlords;
  • listening to distraught parents;
  • explaining to a new resident that his neatly-wrtten, jam-packed twelve-hour schedule was unrealistic. When he failed to meet it, he would feel bad. This daily routine was to begin with an exercise program at 6:00 a.m., when in reality I had to pull him out of bed at noon (if I drew the short straw);
  • keeping couples from sneaking upstairs for a “little privacy”;
  • remembering to carry matches for the smokers. And they were all smokers —
  • except for Henry, who looked like a model for a LL Bean, complete with backpack. But he slept under the bridge and wouldn’t come into the house. He warned me back then to leave town because “something truly terrible” was going to happen in December. Several Decembers have come and gone and nothing happened. Maybe he had the year wrong?

I liked that job. I enjoyed the people. But my worsening fatigue and pain (later diagnosed as fibromyalgia) made working impossible. I quit with great regret and I think of “my” people with fondness. Most of them, at any rate.

Last night, I read Heather MacDonald’s essay on the Los Angeles’ Police Department’s work with the homeless favelas (for lack of a better word) in east L.A. Her words reminded me of the Dumpster story in Kansas. Here is part of “The Truth About Policing and Skid Row”:

The homeless industry on Los Angeles’s Skid Row lost its final shred of legitimacy this summer. Three murders and their aftermath exposed the advocates’ opposition to assertive policing as dangerous, hypocritical posturing. Los Angeles officials should reorient their funding priorities in light of the lessons of the summer of 2009.

For 25 years, Skid Row constituted a real-world experiment in the application of homeless-advocate ideology. The squalor that engulfed the 50-block district just east of downtown Los Angeles was the direct outgrowth of advocates’ claims that the homeless should be exempt from the rules of ordinary society. The result was not a reign of peace and love among society’s underdogs, but rather brutal predation and depravity. Occupants of the filthy tents and lean-tos that covered every inch of sidewalk in the area pimped each other out and stole from, stabbed, and occasionally killed one another…

…intrepid small wholesalers and warehouse owners who tried to keep the area’s once vigorous commercial trade alive removed feces, condoms, and hypodermic needles from the entrance to their properties every morning. Elderly residents of the local Single Room Occupancy hotels were imprisoned in their tiny apartments, terrified to go outside.

In 2006, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton announced a full-scale attack on Skid Row anarchy. His Safer City Initiative (SCI) would be a demonstration project, he said, for Broken Windows theory, which holds that tolerance for low-level forms of crime and disorder allows more serious crime to fester. When the police started enforcing jaywalking, public urination, and public camping laws, thousands of warrant absconders and violent parolees on the lam lost their refuge. Order gradually returned to the streets.

The homeless themselves were the Safer City Initiative’s most immediate beneficiaries. As the lawlessness in the encampments was pushed back, deaths from drug overdoses, untreated disease, and other non-homicidal causes of mortality diminished as well, falling 36 percent in just three years. Skid Row’s violent crime — the victims of which were almost always other vagrants — decreased 45 percent from the first nine months of 2006, before SCI began, to the first nine months of 2009. The lean-tos faded away as their inhabitants discovered that they could no longer smoke weed and crack in them all day without disturbance.

Skid Row’s radical social-service providers and public-housing advocates declared war on the Safer City Initiative. They directed a nonstop barrage of propaganda and lawsuits against the LAPD…

Those “radical social-service providers” are socialist p.c. do-gooders whose ignorant practices increased the problems of the poor and lined their own pockets. Read Ms. MacDonald’s essay in its entirety. She’s the City Journal expert on law enforcement. In fact, follow that story with this one, a dark tale about the incarcerated, violent mentally ill in New York City. Our good intentions have re-created Bedlam in a more noxious, violent form.

Some questions for our readers:

What is your take on the story of the couple in the Dumpster who were set upon and robbed?

How many homeless people have you known?

How many homeless, mentally ill people have you known?

Finally, do you know how hard it is to make it back to Normal Land once you’ve dropped into The Pit?

I thanked my friend for emailing that story from Wichita because it got my attention. I was reminded that for all our present trouble, the Baron and I are most fortunate: in a land that will come to see more and more homeless, we live without debt in a home of our own. And the limitations of income loss and fibromyalgia can’t begin to compare with the sad loss brought on by chronic homelessness and mental illness.

This is an issue — American homelessness — that I will address from time to time in the future. It’s not just one problem. Homelessness brings chaos, community illness, and serious crime in its wake.

Besides, no man is an island. We are all affected, even if we don't experience it directly.


In Hoc Signo Vinces† said...

Care in the community was implemented in the U.K. as a low tax - small governement policy. Yet another policy dummy sold to consevitives by a closet neo-liberal in this instance Margret Thatcher. The cost of care in the community has been high not only in public money but also in innocent life taken by unmedicated "walking weirdoes".

The inspiration for this policy came from a philosopher who enjoyed going into the desert while taken hallucinatory drugs. Presumably this was also the source of the American policy concerning mental health.

Dymphna said...


It's a shame Lady Thatcher did not look at America's experience by then. We'd had enough years of problems by the time her turn came 'round for the UK to know it was a mistake.

It's not that it couldn't work, it's that it has to be done correctly, as the Kaiser Report I linked to points out.

And if, as here, the large institutions stay open and staffed because of the unions (instead of building smaller places, more of them and less expensive to run than those huge regional piles)then there was no real saving.

As I understand it, schizophrenia exists in about 2% of the population. It is notoriously hard to get such patients treated in the community because of the problems of compliance with medication, etc.

But we're not learning from Europe's socialized health care, either. Nothing will do but to copy it and make a mess. Obama has already made a deal with Big Pharma to exclude them from any price restrictions. And the giant insurance companies will survive but the small, innovative companies will be crushed. Then we'll have long line, surgeries cancelled, SRO emergency care.