HOMELESS LIKE THEM - PART I
Our foundation's mantra has been established as "Actions Not Words" and we do not take our responsibilities lightly, especially in relation to the long-term initiatives we have established. We have assembled an incredibly talented team of officers and board members who will be contributing in various ways as we move forward with our song and video project, our runners for The Boston Marathon in 2021 and 2022, and our poetry journal.
When one walks around any area of New Orleans, or any other major city for that matter, it's impossible to not be emotionally affected by the number of homeless people, tents, and panhandlers. But emotional responses are one thing and actions to make a difference are quite another.
To better understand the realities of being homeless, I decided to spend two weeks in March 2021 living as an indigent person. There were several ground rules I established for myself, however, to limit any impact on the services provided to homeless people in the highly-concentrated downtown area.
I would not check into a shelter because that would take away a spot from a person who truly needed it. Similarly, I would not panhandle for money so that those funds from a Good Samaritan could go to someone (hopefully) deserving.
My plan was to spend one week sleeping in my car and one week sleeping in a tent on the street. I soon came to discover, however, that - as much as I had hoped to fit in with the homeless community - there were too many advantages in my life that I took for granted that forced me to exist at an observing distance only.
To wit, my clothes - even what I consider to be the rattiest of the collection - are too new and too clean. My middle-aged skin is not (too) weather-beaten or leathery in comparison. My hair and beard are both presentable, as are my teeth and general look. It was going to be impossible for me to blend in with this subset of the population on appearance alone because I have not spent years exposed to nature's elements on a continual basis.
I have a gym in which to workout (and shower), an air-conditioned office near The Superdome to work, and money to purchase food, toiletries, and convert to quarters for visits to the laundromat. I can afford sunscreen and vitamins. I'm healthy even with a left knee that forced soccer retirement upon me, so preexisting medical concerns would not be an issue. I own waterproof luggage that was purchased as much for usefulness as vanity; my belongings would not be transported in a plastic garbage bag.
These advantageous realities are foreign to the homeless person sleeping in a doorway.
Less than seventy years ago, when the population of the United States was about half of what it is now, there were over 500,000 beds available at mental health facilities. Today,
with the population exceeding 330M people, there are less than 50,000.
I didn't make these numbers up to satisfy a position; they are from a National Institute of Health report and an article in Psychology Today. And what was the perfect storm to see a 90% reduction in mental health facility beds while the population doubled? Follow along...
The pharmaceutical industry influenced university studies in the 1960s that changed the philosophy of psychiatric care from civil commitment to outpatient care with heavily-administered medication programs to create customers for life.
The economic distress during the 1970s saw states and municipalities roll back, or cease entirely, their budgets for mental health care. Included amongst these measures were propositions (like Prop 13 in California) meant to lower taxes for homeowners and businesses, thus removing major funding for psychiatric facilities.
In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration slashed Medicaid expenditures by 18%+ and the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services was cut 25%.
And what can we as a society, three-decades on, conclude from these factors?
We have a tremendous homelessness problem whether mental health issues are involved or not.
For those with mental health worries, we have created a society that has no interest in long-term care or responsibility.
Jails meant for criminals serve as revolving doors for the indigent: one police officer in New Orleans told me that many homeless people try to get arrested for vagrancy or trespassing so they can get fed, shower, and have a place to sleep for a few nights.
Mass shootings in the last thirty years continue to break records for savagery.
Profits from psych meds and opioids are not invested into communities. Rather, they destroy communities.
The stigma of civil commitment to institutions (that no longer exist because funds are not committed to them) has created a population of people who are a persistent danger to themselves and others. And we are on to Part II of this series...