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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.
you, Steve Kersker