Tonight after coming home from class (I had a test in accounting, and I think I did much better than I was expecting) I decided that it was far too nice out to stay indoors. For me, this usually means a run or a bike ride. I had some library books to return, so I opted for the bike. Having a backpack with speakers in the straps makes a bike ride extra special, so taking books was also an excuse to ride without having headphones.
Anyway, after cruising to the nearest library branch, and jumping off/over everything I am capable of on the way there, I met a man on my return trip. I had just cut through a gas station parking lot that has a big curb right before a small grassy slope about two feet high. As I am prone to do, I headed toward the curb as quickly as possible hopped over it and cleared the grass to land on the sidewalk below. Just after landing I heard someone yell –almost like a cheer– and turned to my left to see another biker in the parking lot below the gas station. I turned and headed in their direction thinking perhaps they were out on a similar bike mission, and found a man who looked to be in his early forties, with thick eyeglasses, wearing a cardigan and khaki pants, riding in the parking lot. As I greeted him I noticed that he was smoking and, perhaps to give some cause to my approach, asked him for a cigarette.
He went on to ask if I’d like one courtesy of Weber’s (a fancy hotel in my neighborhood) or a Camel. I opted for the Camel. After a few minutes of chatting about the weather, he began to talk about American society and how disconnected from each other we have all gotten; about how there is all to often not much of a sense of community. This seemed like it would be an interesting topic to have while we enjoyed the weather and our cigarettes. To continue in this vein, we spoke of the way that sprawl, subdivisions, and zoning can make people dependent on cars, which puts them in a little bubble and further isolates them from human contact. Soon after this, he began telling me about how he was working to save up to move to France, and was telling me of the many business ideas he has, some of which I kind of wish I had been taking notes on.
Knowing that I was going to be blogging this evening before bed, and wanting to document the occasion I asked the man (who’s name is Benjamin) if he would mind if I took his photograph and put it in my blog. He said that would be fine, but that we should probably go to another part of the parking lot for better lighting.
After we moved and I snapped his picture, we sat on a curb an continued our conversation. As it turns out, Ben is currently homeless, and had been camping out near the parking lot where we met. He had also just recently lost his job after spending a night incarcerated for littering in Rochester Hills. While we were sitting and talking, the conversation moved on to religion, and how he had not long ago been at a church in the metro Detroit area, with at least 80 cars in the parking lot, and a congregation of people who pretty much shunned him because of his current circumstance. We talked about the concept of “corrections” vs “incarceration” and how there is very little correcting that actually goes on when someone is locked up. Having a younger brother who has been in and out of jail and also spent five years in prison, I had a pretty good idea of how the whole system seems to work. After talking a little bit about my brother, who is schizo affective, with bipolar disorder being the mood disorder, and the usual delusions, hallucinations and thought processes that go with schizophrenia, Ben revealed that he had been labeled as being bipolar as well. From our exchanges so far, I would not have ever suspected as much except for the fact that he was currently without shelter, and unfortunately that and a diagnosis of mental illness often go hand-in-hand.
Ben was telling me about how he has several siblings, most of whom have all but disowned him. There was a recent incident of one of his brothers not even taking him in for a night when he showed up at his house. I’m sure there have been incidents that would make his brother a bit leery of taking him in, but to tell him to get off of his lawn and leave the property –not even offering a meal or a glass of water– is just insane to me. Back to my brother for a moment: there have been things that happened when he was living with our parents; theft, property damage, aggressive behavior and talk of hurting the family pets, that caused them to ask him to go elsewhere for a while, but he is still always welcome for dinner and able to stay the night whenever he needs to. I can not imagine (if I had a house of my own) ever turning my brother away. I would rather have to keep all of my valuable belongings locked away than to tell him he is not welcome.
My brother has, in addition to being in and out of my parents house, mental wards, jails and prison, been homeless at times. Our conversation then turned to the way that society thinks of people who are diagnosed with mental illness. It is quite shameful to me in many ways. Persons with mental illness are too often shunned, ridiculed, treated as sub-human, and left as castaways from society. It breaks my heart a little to know that fear and lack of understanding can cause otherwise decent people to treat another in this way. Because of this, and the special care and attention that some people need (it can be a lot, and very overwhelming) many, if not most, mentally ill people become homeless. And unfortunately most homeless people have some sort of mental illness. Without a society that is more willing to understand and try to help them to build a life for themselves, many of them die alone, and with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
I’m not saying we should all go out and take in strangers like stray stray cats, or that we are all inherently evil for not being empathetic to the plights of the mentally ill or homeless, I’m just saying that a I think a little more compassion is in order. I can’t tell you how many times during the forty minutes we spent talking that Ben, who’s last name is Perraut (he wanted me to be sure I got the spelling right so I wrote it on my arm), told me how nice it was to have another person just sit and have a conversation with him, to just connect in as simple a way as having a smoke on a nice night and talking about what they’ve been reading, or the book he’s been writing, or Eastern religions and applied philosophies versus organized religions of the West… to be treated like a human, with their own thoughts and ideas, as opposed to some throw-away piece of societal fringe.
I’m not saying we all suck. I’m just suggesting that next time we see a homeless person, instead of jumping to the conclusion that they fucked up somehow, that it’s all their fault and they deserve what they get, we should maybe look a little closer at the fact that it is another human being, who could maybe use a little help, or at least a little understanding.
I’ll end this with one last thought, something I read many years ago that stuck with me: Mental illness: the way we treat it, is insane.