Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Here's the thing

Here's the thing.

I live in Berkeley, California. Every single day, as I walk to the Bus stop (corner of University and Shattuck) I pass a guy that is usually deeply engrossed in conversation with a companion or companions he is hallucinating are there with him. His hair is long, ragged, and sort of in a dirt-imposed dreadlock style. He appears not to have bathed in quite awhile. He is dressed in rags, his eyes alternate between vacant and haunted. He eats McDonald's leftovers out of the Garbage Can, and rolls cigarettes from butts he collects.

I wouldn't say he is an immediate threat to himself or others: he does feed himself, as I said, and he does not do things (at least that I've seen) that represent a threat of serious, acute (as opposed to chronic, cumulative) harm to himself or others.

I was driving by one day, and was suddenly sick at heart at the thought, "Tonight, he will sleep out in the rain. Huddled in some doorway, miserable and shivering."

What could I do? It was 8 days til payday, and the balance in my bank account was 50 bucks and I was low on food, so I couldn't get him a room, even if I'd stopped and convinced him somehow to accept it, and convinced a motel manager to let him stay.

Civil rights aside, his condition and circumstances demand attention. Lots of it.

He suffers terribly, every single day, because no one does anything for him, or at least no one does enough.

In my imagination, I can summon a very different world.

I can imagine a world where everyone in the neighborhood knows his name. I can imagine a world where lots of people greet him by name throughout the day. I can imagine a world where a steady stream of people say to him, gently and kindly, "Hey, Pete, how ya doin'? Man, you need to take your meds. What's your doctor's name again?"

I can imagine a world where his doctor gets a steady stream of calls, the gist of which is, "Doc, a bunch of us are concerned about Pete. He hasn't been taking care of himself. What can we do to help?"

I can imagine a world that contains a place for him to live, that demands that he be provided a place to live, a place where kindly people will get after him about his meds, bathe him, give him loving kindness.

But that world has yet to be built. The carpenters that need to build it, you and I, are not busy enough.


  1. You would think in the land of liberalism that is Berkeley, that this sort of thing would not happen, where are the good liberals in Berkeley helping this person - couldn't the good liberals in this city get together and help people out like this person and the many others that are there in Berkeley?? I get upset when I hear of homeless people in Berkeley and San Francisco - two of the most liberal areas in this country and they can't even get programs that work to help these people. That is if they even want the help, society can't force help on these people anymore so if they don't want our help or want to take their meds, there isn't much we can do until they do get violent and as you said, some of these homeless people probably would never get violent. It is a shame that we can't find a middle ground to put the mentally ill homeless into a treatment area that can help them get on their feet and help them stay sane on meds (although finding the right meds may make the person either violent or even more crazy - I have seen that with one of my own friends). So I suggest that you write a letter to the Berkeley city council and see if they can get some kind of community action to solve this problem and be a model for the rest of the country. let us know when you do that.

  2. Thank you, Eric for that comment. I agree that there is a certain irony in Liberal Berkeley turning a blind eye to people like Pete.

    I think part of the problem is that so many people (me included) feel overwhelmed by the scope of the need: "If I help this one guy, there are 3 more I can see right now...what about them?

    Rather than write to the city council, I think I will go and just read them my post. The discussion should be interesting...