His name is Gene, and he’s a handful.
He is a large man in his late 50’s, but has the mental processes of, perhaps, a 10 year old. He is loud and aggressive, and he scares lots of people. He is on medication, when he remembers to take it, and when he does, everything is well. When he doesn’t, it is disastrous.
He gets very frustrated with the housing and mental health system, which he doesn’t understand at all. In all honestly, I do this for a living and I don’t understand it either. He knows he needs housing, and he knows he needs assistance with things like remembering to take his medication. If you ask him what he needs, those are the two things he is absolutely clear about.
“I need to live in a group home, where somebody can help me take my medicine” is practically his mantra these days.
Many people have told him they will help him, but all he knows is he still sleeps outside that night. He then gets frustrated with the people trying to find him resources, and roars and screams and he gets banned from their facility, and he tries to start over somewhere else, where he repeats his mantra and the cycle begins again.
Lately, Gene has been hanging out at the Hospitality House here at Love Wins. Mainly he sleeps, since he roams the streets at night. But then he will wake up and tell us he needs a group home, where someone can give him his medicine. We listen, and explain that we have called the group homes we know, and we have called the group homes everyone else knows and that there is no place for Gene at any of them. He then gets agitated and we tell him he has to calm down. It usually works.
Tuesday, it didn’t. He got progressively more agitated and angry, and he came in my office and threatened staff members and threatened me. The community members felt unsafe, and the staff felt unsafe and, something that rarely happens, I felt unsafe. I told him he had to leave. He refused, and we called the police and eventually, he left.
I felt like crap, as I always do when I make someone leave. I always see it as failure on our part – failure to be a welcoming place, failure to understand them and their needs, failure to listen long enough or to truly hear their cries. After all, violence is the language of the unheard.
But the reality is, we couldn’t be what he needed us to be. What he needs is exactly what he says he needs – a supportive living environment that will make sure he takes care of himself. Often, I am in the position of advocating for people. Gene is fully capable of advocating for himself – but what he needs doesn’t exist here.
Wednesday, he came back. He came to the office and told us he knew he wasn’t supposed to be here, but he had nowhere else he was allowed to be, and we were the only people that would listen to him. And could we help him get in a group home where someone would help him take his medicine?
We had one new resource we had learned about since the last time he was here, so Madeline took him to the vacant lot across the street (because he was banned from our place, and we take that, and the safety of the people there, seriously) and called the new resource and we were hopeful.
It didn’t pan out. They weren’t what Gene needed either, and they were kind of rude, on top of it all. So, we looked Gene in the eye and told him we couldn’t help him, and he wasn’t allowed to come back and we were really sorry. And he said he understood, and walked away, head hung low.
I don’t know what the answer is for people like Gene. Actually, that isn’t true. I do know, and you know, and even Gene knows. He needs a safe place to live where people will make sure he takes care of himself. The problem is, since the 1980’s, such a thing has become more and more rare. These days it practically is nonexistent. The largest residential mental health facility in the United States is the Cook County Jail, in Chicago.
On good days, I tell myself that I didn’t fail Gene – I loved him, I tried to create a safe place for him to be, I listened to him, I made sure he was heard. On bad days, I tell myself that I didn’t listen long enough or work hard enough. But on honest days, I know the truth – I didn’t fail Gene – we as a society failed Gene. Because while we as a society might lament cases like this, we are OK with it happening – we are OK with people like Gene falling through the cracks and becoming more and more isolated and more and more alone.
Because the cold hard truth is that if we weren’t OK with it, we would make sure there was a safe place for Gene to live, where someone would make sure he takes care of himself.