As I walked through the shelter, I was overwhelmed by the emptiness I felt as I watched numerous individuals in various states of wellness, both mentally and physically. I will be honest and say that I was first uncomfortable because this was a completely different world from my own life. My life afforded me shelter, and not just any shelter but one that I could transform to whatever my current decorating whim might be. My home was either heated or cooled just right. My refrigerator was full of food, my cabinets full of matching dishes, and my belly full of delicacies that now made me guilty as I looked around me. My closet is full of clothes with spring, summer, fall, and winter attire. My bathroom is full of products used to cleanse and pamper me before starting my day.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People
As I became bolder, I started conversations with many guests, and what I learned was heartbreaking. So many of them were there because of one wrong decision, a lack of support, or mental illness. I also could relate in a distant way to so many of them. When we were young, we lived through some desperate times. My parents had some very tough years together, and often they seemed on different planets. My father though kind and caring, could be so very distant. When I was young, I blamed my mother for this because she was a raging alcoholic. When dad would come home from the farm where my grandparents lived and where dad worked the land, my mother often terrorized him enough that he would leave. Also, during these years, we were financially destitute, with groceries and heat in sparse supply. Usually, we would use space heaters to warm the house, and during the coldest months, we would heat one or two rooms. We often lived on white bread with butter and sugar on it and dehydrated milk. I imagine we were lucky enough to have grandparents that could help dad carry us through the most challenging financial times. It wasn’t this desperate for my whole youth, but I remember the toughest of these years. I also can envision that we would have been one of these families that found themselves living on the street without help from our grandparents. I shudder at the thought.
One gentleman, I spoke with started our conversation with, “I wasn’t always like this, you know, this pitiful man in front of you.” I sat quiet, offering him my silence as his invitation to share more of his story. He was young once and had the world by the tail. He had a family, a successful business, and connections all over the nation. Soon, he found himself introduced to the best alcohol as he traveled; clients and prospects entertained him, which would eventually be his downfall. He was naive to alcohol and had never learned how to drink responsibly. Before he knew it, he drank himself out of his marriage, family, home, and successful business. His details become blurry after that, but eventually, he finds himself in Rochester because he has cancer. He came here with whatever money he had left and found care, though the cancer is metastatic and challenging to control. He wears a catheter because cancer had become so bad that it interfered with his ability to urinate. Eventually, he could not afford the motels in the area, and finally, he found himself on the street. This situation, of course, could’ve been my mother in slightly different circumstances.
Another gentleman, clearly mentally ill, talked of the ending of the world when the aliens came. He warned me further that the government was trying to control our minds and that he was terrified that they would find him. The movie The Sign suddenly came to mind as I envisioned Joaquin Pheonix with the tinfoil hat on his head. I wanted to giggle and then was overtaken with guilt as this situation was anything but funny. This young man had nothing and no one to help him. His mother was elderly, had health problems, and could not provide support either financially or socially. By the sounds of it, his sister had tried, but with his mental illness untreated, caring for him was challenging. Of course, I saw our son sitting there. Again, this situation could so easily be my boy, and who would help him if we could not? My heart quickened, and the blood in my veins turned cold as I thought of the worst situations he would find himself in, if not for us.
San Francisco Streets
I had the opportunity to work with guests staying at a local shelter while completing my BSN. I had always had a soft spot for homeless individuals for no other reason than seeing them in such desperate plights. However, this desire to help the homeless became more evident during our family trip to San Francisco several years back. I was overwhelmed by the number of homeless people that lined the walkways and streets there. I started out giving them cash, but they numbered too many. As we walked, I couldn’t help but comment on the individuals who had a mental illness, many of whom rocked back and forth, oblivious and staring blankly, asking for nothing. These people belonged to someone; a mother, a father, a brother, or a sister. I wanted to wrap my arms around my son and hold him even tighter. In those moments of seeing such utter vulnerability, I realized the depth of our situation with our son. I also said a small prayer of thanks that my husband and I have the means to care for our son and that he, in return (eventually), let us help him.
2020, the Pandemic and the Current Situation.
The pandemic has made these situations dire as evictions across the nation are skyrocketing. People of all ages, races, ethnicity, and circumstance are finding themselves in desperate situations. It is much easier to lose shelter, whether an apartment or a home than to regain it. Many people that find themselves homeless are essential workers. During the most challenging months of 2020, many shops, restaurants, and stores had to close their doors, some permanently. This left people unable to pay rent or a mortgage. Medical care became more complex for the mentally ill, especially with hospitals and clinics overrun with caring for covid patients. Social services could not function, and people fell through the cracks.
In addition to the mentally ill, a significant number of the baby boomer population or our “young elderly” find themselves in precarious situations. Many of the baby boomer population have lived stable, successful lives; however, many have not. These latter baby boomers consisted of those plagued by healthcare problems who were one misfortune away from losing everything. This population has the bad luck of being both too old to be attractive to employers and too young to apply for social security benefits and medicare. Many now find themselves in line at local shelters. Of course, our veterans often find themselves dealing with PTSD, unemployed, and out on the streets. The stories and circumstances are endless.
It is easy to assume this won’t happen to “us.” In truth, most of America is over-stretched and over-extended with inflated mortgages, college, and car payments. Too many are just one recession or depression away from homelessness. Mental illness can happen to anyone; it befell us, the son of a nurse and a financial advisor. You don’t have to be a product of drug addicts or bad people to have a mental illness; I loathe this assimilation.
Support for our Shelters
The idea that if we build it (a shelter), then they (the homeless) will come is absurd. They (the homeless) are here. We can either step over them in our walkways and entry areas or help them help themselves. Yes, there is a myriad of individuals that make up this population. Some are not “good” people, but then again, maybe your neighbor isn’t either; the vast majority of homeless people need a helping hand. If you take the time to visit a local shelter, you can hear the success stories for yourself.