I’ve had the opportunity to visit the West Coast twice in the past few months. Typically, travel is business related but these were both pleasure trips, a rare experience for the members of the convent. Although the visits were enjoyable while we ate and laughed our way through San Francisco and Seattle, it was tough not to notice the amount of homeless wandering and living on the streets. In San Francisco I was with my daughter and had to leave her for a few minutes to find the entrance for a comedy festival. Although she was surrounded by a group of 100 festival goers at high noon, several homeless people made a beeline for her. She is 22 and struggles with a form of muscular dystrophy that impacts here mobility. These people invaded her space, talking crazy and honestly scaring her. As I made my way back to her, I came face to face with two of them. There is a look that people who are high or severally mentally ill have—a blankness in their eyes. It is literally a zombie-like stare. Even in such a beautiful city, the cloud of the problem is palpable. A similar thing happened in Vancouver with my son. During a food tour a homeless man interrupted our guide screaming “look at my feet, they are green and smelly. I haven’t bathed for 7 weeks, smell my feet.” Our young guide was horrified and politely tried to speak to this very ill man only to be threatened by him. My son, although able bodied, was terrified.
I have both personal and professional experience with addiction and mental illness. In fact, currently we are working with two exciting new, innovative companies—one that offers solutions to assist in the detox process and another offering technology for the addiction management lifecycle. I also have more than 16 years of experience in Alanon and Celebrate Recovery, both 12 step-recovery programs for those impacted by addiction. I don’t take this lightly; I’ve seen families destroyed by these issues and I’ve also been blessed to learn about how to live a full life in spite of a family member’s addiction. This includes helpful tools to successfully interact with people struggling with these issues.
Like any human being, my heart goes out to people who find themselves in this condition. However, this is not the Great Depression. In fact, we are experiencing an incredible economic growth—the Nuns can personally attest to this. These West Coast cities are enjoying that same prosperity albeit at a much higher cost of living. And yet the numbers of homeless continue to rise in some geographies. What I see through the lens of recovery is the opposite of healthy interaction. I see streets filled with excrement and needles on the ground of public thoroughfares and streets. Addicts and those with profound mental illness are sick. And sick people don’t get well living in this condition. But here’s the rub; they generally don’t want the help that is offered. This is part of the challenge with these sorts of conditions. The ill don’t view themselves as ill.
Not all homeless fit in the addiction and mental illness category. Some are episodic homeless. In fact, our county south of Nashville has a large number of “homeless” parents with school-aged children. Many are living with friends as an interim step. My church is working with the local city council to find ways to identify and help this category of homeless. Discerning those who need short-term assistance from the long-term chronic homeless is a first step in addressing the issue.
In Nashville, we certainly have homeless with mental illness and addiction. But we also have a healthy public/private partnership that doesn’t enable the problem but rather strives to provide options that are best for the community and the homeless. Treatment is necessary for a significant portion of the chronic homeless. Nearly every church in our city and the suburbs participate in programs to address these issues and, thus far, it is working well.
Sick people need access to healthcare and a safe place to land. A partnership between police, local churches and government is necessary. Unfortunately, I believe our current political climate inhibits the honest assessment of models that work. My hope for the West Coast is that sanity returns to both those living on the street and those who are tasked with finding a solution.