In Search of a Better Way

We were racing to an appointment in a driving rain when we spotted him standing by the side of the road. He was one of the far too many souls who spend their days hoping to get donations from passersby. Most of them appear to be mentally ill, alcoholic or strung out on drugs, but he was different. He was young and appeared to be healthy save for the stub that had once been his right arm. It dangled just above the place where his elbow had been. In the brief moment of our passing I wondered what horrific event had left him in this state. Was he a veteran who had been injured in the war? Had a terrible accident of some kind left him this way? Did he have diabetes?

I would never know the story behind this man, but I would find myself thinking about him long after seeing him. I was saddened that we had not had to opportunity to stop and give him a donation. I wondered why he had not been better rehabilitated so that he might find more meaningful work than begging on the street. I thought of the person he was before this happened to him. It seemed quite sad that his life was not better and I wondered why.

In cities all over the world there are souls whose lives have been utterly changed by injuries, addictions and mental illnesses. They sometimes wander aimlessly among us and we often want to look away when we see them. We never know quite what to do to help them. We worry that just handing them money will only insure that their problems will never be fully addressed. We wonder if it is right or wrong to give them a handout. We think that doing so might only feed their addictions or insure that they will remain on the streets. Surely, we think there must be something positive that we might do to help. They haunt us because they seem so very lost, and yet we know that they are sons, daughters, perhaps even mothers or fathers.

Whenever my mom became exceedingly ill with the symptoms of her bipolar disorder my brothers and I always worried about what might happen to her if she were freely driving around. She had been in minor wrecks before. She often became confused and lost. At stores she behaved suspiciously because of her paranoia. She even became so rattled that she forgot that she was holding an item for which she had not paid. We were happiest when she no longer had access to a car, but even then she would ask neighbors to take her places or she would call cabs. On many occasions she became so disoriented inside places of business that people became afraid of her. Luckily they always chose to help her rather than calling the police. They found the phone numbers of me and my brothers and called us to come retrieve her. Still, we were concerned that one day we would not be so fortunate. We imagined her getting lost in a system that actually protected her from our intrusions. We wondered if the time would come when we might find her wandering along the streets.

After one of her most terrible bouts of paranoia she was hospitalized, and our contact with her only came with her permission. She was still in a fragile state when the doctor who was treating her decided to release her without informing me and my brothers. When we asked how she would have gotten home, we were told that the facility would have called a cab. Little did they realize that her home was in a terrible state, without water or gas because she had asked to have those services turned off. There was no food in the house and no way for her to drive to get some. Furthermore, she had no medication. Had we not accidentally found out about her impending move back home, she might have been caught up in a very unsafe situation, and who knows what might have happened. I suspect that many mentally ill individuals end up in homeless camps because of just such an event.

We really need to do a better job of helping the homeless. There are many kind and loving individuals who make it their business to offer aide. Sadly, there are also laws prohibiting how much they can do. For example, in my city providing food is against the rules and carries stiff fines when someone is caught doing so.

We have shelters and places that they might go, but so many of them are not of sound mind and they are frightened by the regulations of such places. They prefer to be free regardless of how dangerous it is to be so. What we can do for them is limited by frustrating laws.

I see the homeless and I feel so powerless. I have to even admit that some of them frighten me because their minds are so muddled. I want to help more but have little idea what to do. It is frustrating and yet I am certain that theirs should be an important cause but we all too often ignore their plight.

Instead of arguing about silly things like whether or not an athlete should take a knee we would do well to ask ourselves what we might do for the individuals among us who have somehow become so lost that they must live under bridges and beg us for enough to make it from one day to the next. Surely there is a better way for them. It’s time we get serious about finding it.

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