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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


My Home Is Any Empty Bench

"So what'd you do for fun this past summer?" That's a question we kids asked a lot.

Ask that question to a guy who's homeless and you just might get punched -- because his summer is nothing like yours.

We go crazy from the heat, constant thunderstorms, bugs and the hunger of so many missed meals. And thirst consumes our thoughts: places that could give us water turn us away with disgust. And the police who protect you - they seem to take delight in harassing us. Moving us on, keeping us in constant motion: never giving us a chance to rest. 

Humiliation -- at the raggedy, mismatched clothes we wear, our unkempt hair, unwashed bodies and possessions clutched close in plastic bags  -- accompany us like a cloud: a cloud that keeps society at bay, as if mere contact with us will somehow harm them.

As people turn away, or even cross the street to avoid us, that avoidance digs at the few fragments of dignity we cling to. Our degradation complete we begin to see ourselves as non-persons.


Within some of us an inner rage builds, unfocused: just a wrong look, the wrong word, the wrong place -- and someone's liable to go off on us - a beating.  And our attacker just wanders off down the streets.  We wonder, who's next? The law? That's for the regular world; it rarely applies to ours. And we awake in an emergency room.

There we get some stitches, maybe a patched-up fracture, a set of crutches and a prescription that we have no money to fill. Then it's back to the streets where now we have company: flies that buzz incessantly around our wounds as stitches rip out. And the pain of our beating is added to summer's already nasty sting.

Hygiene? Good luck. For the hundreds of us that want to shower, there are only 70 slots each day in the entire city. And they're available only in the morning, with a wait of up to four hours. Our unwashed smell is not by choice. And we are constantly shamed as regular folks mutter about our appearance and smell, as if we can't hear them, or maybe they just don't care if we do: it's as if we don't have feelings.

For day laborers, showering is a near impossibility. If we're lucky and get a day job, we work all day in the sweltering sun, but at days end, no shower, no clean clothes. We're forced to wear the same clothes to work day after day.  And our clothes often begin rotting on our bodies in the incessant rain and heat - dirt and sweat of hard manual labor. On the job we live in embarrassment as coworkers avoid us. They say, "How could a human being live like that?"  We have little choice. 

Some of us wash all right, but not our clothes. We beg a buck, down a bottle of mouthwash, 40% alcohol, and stumble around til the next buck arrives. It keeps us oblivious to who we are, where we are and why we are.


For some of us, day labor and frustration is a single reality. We find work and believe we've finally escaped the streets. We put ourselves into flophouses, maybe girlfriends in tow. The stirrings of pride begin entering our hearts we at having a place called home. We struggle desperately to pay the rent, then somehow, something always happens and we lose our jobs. All too soon, rent unpaid, our possessions tossed on the sidewalk, we slide back to the streets: never realizing that our failures are often the result of undiagnosed and untreated moderate mental illnesses.

Severe mental disorders capture too many of us in their seductive charms.  With omnipresent delusions, imaginings displace the reality of the streets. We escape the horrors of our lives by entering a world of our own creation: completely unaware of the stench of our unwashed bodies, the sun roasting our skin or the bugs eating our flesh. Very few of us escape: that requires psychiatric intervention and meds. And whenever we fall into the hands of the mental health system, discharge is quick, and once back on the streets our meds are quickly tossed, future appointments forgotten and we return to our secret worlds.

Years ago those of us with severe mental illnesses would have lived in state institutions. But most of those places have been closed now and little of their funding was redirected for our care. As a result, the cities we live in are becoming de facto state hospitals. Today people with severe to moderate mental illnesses are overwhelming city services.

No community's emergency or police services were ever prepared to act as replacement staff for state institutions. The consequence is clear: as the substitute for state care we have been given over to the streets, to the elements, to shame and hopelessness.

The final injustice of the streets: by labeling us homeless, instead of mentally ill, we're blamed for our condition and society denies responsibility for our care. If we were seen as mentally ill, as people with an illness that is just as legitimate as diabetes or heart disease, society would feel obligated to help us. But society turns a blind eye to our suffering: who cares about a homeless bum? And that's our final indignity. Written by Steve Kersker can be reached at (727) 823-8404 or email 
 Thank you, Steve Kersker