On the Brink

One of our guests–I’ll call him D.W.–has been attending our Wednesday night Bible study and dinner for years. He’s been on and off the streets since he was 18, and is middle-aged now. While fleeing his abusive father at age 8, he, his mother, and sister got into a devastating car accident. His mother died in the hospital a day later. He was put into foster care and lost contact with his siblings and extended family. After suffering physical and sexual abuse from his foster parents and siblings, he finally decided he’d had enough. He left San Diego, moved to Arizona, and ended up homeless and drug addicted. He started stealing to feed his drug habit, and that landed him in prison.

After prison, he came back to San Diego, worked some odd jobs, and tried to stay sober. Haunted by his past, with no family or support system, and with an incomplete education, he eventually ended up homeless again. He’s been surviving outside ever since, sometimes winning and often losing the battle with depression and drugs.

When you meet D.W. for the first time, you wouldn’t guess all that about him. On a good day you might not even realize he’s homeless, aside from the big backpack. He has a humble demeanor, kind eyes, and good manners. You can tell he tries earnestly to do the right thing, to help others, to stay sober when he can.

A few weeks ago, D.W. stopped by the church midday on a Friday, dropped off a note, and walked away. As soon as I read it, I ran outside to chase him down, but he had already rounded the corner–and I wasn’t sure which one. The note said that he couldn’t do it anymore, that he planned to intentionally overdose on heroin (not his drug of choice) and go “lights out” that night, but that he wanted to say goodbye and to thank us for all we had done. After tracking him down and eventually finding him an hour later, he was shaking with tears, and he refused to talk to me. I tried to approach him but he told me to get away and took off down the sidewalk.

For the next two weeks, I was calling hospitals daily and eventually tried calling the morgue, but nobody had him. That was both distressing and relieving. Then, weeks later…he came by the church on a weekday once again.

He wanted to tell us that instead of finding heroin that night, he had gone to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He apologized for scaring me, and told me that he knew God loved him and was taking care of him. Now he is back at the our Bible study every Wednesday night, with his humble, grateful, sober demeanor still intact.

We know that he and so many like him are still living lives on the brink of despair. But when you see God save someone’s life right before your eyes like that, there is reason to hope.

Homelessness and Mental Illness

Whenever I answer the “what do you do for work?” question, one of the follow-up questions I almost always get is: “How many people are homeless because of mental illness?” It’s a logical question. Walking around downtown San Diego, or nearly any city in America, it won’t take long before you come across someone with noticeably poor hygiene who appears to be talking, often angrily, to the air. Seeing that same snapshot over and over again creates a certain impression.

Statistically, there’s a big correlation between mental illness and homelessness. Nearly a third of homeless people in San Diego last year were willing to admit to strangers (volunteer interviewers) that their mental issues were a significant factor in their continued homelessness. And that’s just self-reporting; plenty of others would be embarrassed to admit something like that, or are in denial.

The problem is that, behind the “homelessness and mental illness” question, there are often some underlying assumptions being made. Assumptions about who is worth helping, who is capable of change, who is worth the investment–and who isn’t.

Nothing has the power to change someone’s perspective like personal experience: getting to know mentally ill homeless folks on a personal level, hearing their stories, learning to love their idiosyncrasies, and yes, being driven crazy by their unreasonableness. You start to see that the snapshot of someone talking to the air downtown is just that: a snapshot. You see people on their good days, not just their bad days. You start to see that the fears, loves, and hates going on beneath the surface of the delusions are a lot more relateable–more normal–than they first appeared. And you slowly begin to realize how street life itself is a cause, not just an effect, of mental problems.

Consider our dear friend, Don. Don has schizophrenia and was homeless for four decades on the streets of San Diego. On the streets, Don had an unkempt beard, gnarly fingernails, a quick temper, and a tendency to growl and bite his own fist when he got upset. At first glance, it was hard to know how to help someone like him. Today, Don is being taken care of in a nursing home. His needs are met and he has a safe and stable place to live, perhaps for the first time in his adult life. Although his physical health is declining, his mental health is better than we’ve ever seen it. He still has some symptoms of schizophrenia and anxiety disorder, but he is calm, easy to talk to, clean-shaven, and content. Best of all, he has a clear and unwavering faith in Jesus.

Mental illness is a contributing factor in many people’s homelessness. But it is not the totality of who someone is, and it does not have to be the end of their story.

Coffee Time

One of our Ladle regulars is an older gentleman in his early seventies. He’s originally from the East Coast but has lived in California for decades. He tells me often about his time studying for the Catholic priesthood as a young man, his job as a schoolteacher, his beloved parents, and the time he met Katherine Hepburn when he was working at SeaWorld. Some weeks he stops by the church almost every day for a cup of coffee in the morning and some conversation.

He has good days and bad days. I wonder at what point in his life the symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar began to set in and disrupt his life. I wonder what kinds of traumatic experiences he may have had that contributed to his mental disorders. I admire how he tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy and personal dignity; he always pays attention to his appearance and is proud of his academic vocabulary. And yet, I’m frustrated by how impossible it is to reason with him on his bad days.

He has no living parents or siblings. Never married, never had children. He’s alone in world, continually cycling through the revolving doors of hospitals, jail, psychiatric crisis centers…and First Presbyterian Church.

Despite his sometimes fragile grasp on reality, one thing he knows for certain is that he loves the Lord, and that the Lord loves him.

This church is a haven for him, and the closest thing he has to family. I haven’t seen him here for a few days now…and I’m missing coffee time.

Remembering Lloyd

Yesterday was the Rescue Mission’s annual candlelight vigil for the homeless who died on the streets last year. We grieved the lives lost, all 116 of them, certain that at least a few were known to us — including a family member of John, our director.

During the vigil, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lloyd. Lloyd was a middle-aged homeless man and a regular at our Ladle meals, where he came both for the food and for the kindness. His unrelenting alcoholism had kept him languishing on the streets for many years. He vacillated between apologetic despair and a simple faith in God that edged toward hope. He always expressed his gratitude to us for serving him and often seemed ashamed by his inability to repay the favor. On his good days, he had smiling eyes and a compliment for everyone. On other days, he kept to himself and just emanated sadness.

Last fall, Lloyd let me know privately that he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer — stage four. He told me he was ready to die and that he hoped God would accept him. I saw Lloyd for another month or two after that, and then he stopped appearing at the Ladle. It’s now been almost a year since I’ve seen him.

At the vigil yesterday, John reminded us that our God is a God of the homeless and lonely. Even Jesus had “no place to lay his head.” Lloyd’s life and death mattered. I wish I could tell him how much he has been missed.