Grieving our humanitarian crisis

I cannot shake an image from this past Tuesday in Downtown Los Angeles.  I am admitting here that I feel ashamed that I did not stop and at least check to see if the man was okay.  This is what happens when we succumb to the new normal that is insidiously creeping into virtually every corner of our city. 

Having departed the subway, I was walking east on Wilshire Blvd to meet a colleague.  If I kept up that pace, I would be on time.  There was an older man, in soiled clothes, laying in a fetal position in the middle of the sidewalk.  People were walking around him, including me.  He was not tucked up against the wall of a building, which is a more common sight.  My heart stopped.  Lord have mercy.

If this was me in the Hollywood BID, I would know who to call to check on him.  I’ve made my share of 911 calls also, only to have the paramedics show up, roust someone awake and move on.  But downtown, I don’t know who to call, and I needed to be on time, and because this is increasingly such a common sight, I sunk into the abyss of being complicit.   

Scene from The Pianist (2002). As disturbing as this is, these are images that come to my mind when I see people on the street I cannot help.

My mind takes me back to one of the movies about the Holocaust – would it be a scene from The Pianist?  (If anyone remembers, please ping me.)  There is a sidewalk scene in Warsaw where a child who is clearly hungry is ignored by passersby.  Everything about the Holocaust shakes me to the core but I recall feeling deeply affected by that scene wondering what I would do.

Yet here I am.

Emotions are running high

The Los Angeles city and county homeless count numbers were announced on June 4 and anger and frustration and finger-pointing continues to roil.  Several dozen media stories, local and national, have pointed out the misery and human suffering existing on the streets of Southern California.  I am here to say that anger and frustration is good.  Marriage therapists, for example, will say that unless there is some emotion they can work with, the marriage is doomed.   

Perhaps what our community is going through now is akin to the stages of grief as applied not to the loss of a loved one, but the state of Los Angeles County.   Shock and denial at the numbers, which confirm what we are seeing on our sidewalks and freeway underpasses, despite the money and initiatives that have been deployed in the past couple of years to address these problems. 

Anger directed to everyone and anyone:  elected officials, NIMBY’s, single family homeowners, civil libertarians, other states exporting their homeless, Airbnb.  I see anger directed toward those who might contribute to the cause and sadly toward those who are experiencing the effect:  those “anonymous people” who are homeless, regardless of their circumstance.

Bargaining by second guessing all the decisions made that led us here. If only we had built more housing.  If only we had not settled this lawsuit.  If only we had more shelter beds.   If only we had a better mental health system.  If only _____.

Depression sets in when it all seems futile.  Having worked in this space for years now, I admit a certain sadness that we’ve not made more progress.  However, the economic, legal and social conditions that have converged over many years to contribute to this crisis are far more complicated and deeper than most people realize.

That said, where we don’t want to arrive in this grief journey is in the land of Acceptance.  More on that in a moment.

Just this week

In my new life chapter, I am in this space now all the time.  In addition to the man I saw on Tuesday, I’ve been helpless to figure out how to address some other situations I have encountered just this week:

  • My long-term buddy,  Mr. T,  walked out of his board and care (again) on June 7.  He is bored there, and he wants his SSDI money.  He is part of the Full Service Partnership program (also funded by the Mental Health Services Act) but his case management team seems to struggle to keep him engaged.  By Monday June 10, he was out of money (either spent it all, was robbed, or a combination of both) and sleeping on Hollywood Blvd.  This week, he returned to the board and care for two days, only to walk out again on Thursday.
  • I visited a young man yesterday (let’s call him Scott) at the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row.  I heard about Scott through a colleague is feeling despair at her inability to help him.  I now understand why.   His story seems emblematic of so much of what is playing out on our streets right now, with no solution in sight.  Scott, originally from Chicago, grew up in the foster care system, born to a mother addicted to crack.  Long story short, with a little training under his belt in restaurant work, he came to LA, as many do, looking for opportunity.  He found places to stay by connecting with men on Tinder or Craigslist.  Red alert!   That plan went sour when one of those “boyfriends,” a hairstylist to celebrities, turned on him.  From what I could gather, when he showed up at the boyfriend’s house to retrieve his phone and belongings, he was arrested for attempted robbery and vandalizing the front door.   Upon googling that “boyfriend,” I located him on one of those websites devoted to celebrity plastic surgery gone wrong.  He looked like a freak; but something told me this was his modus operandi with vulnerable young men homeless in West Hollywood.    It was hard to get the entire story, because Scott seemed to be overly medicated on Haldol, and was constantly on the verge of dozing off. Scott ended up in jail and said he felt he had no choice but to enter into a plea deal which now has him on five years’ probation.  He has nowhere to go and seems to be completely alone in the world.
  • Our Hollywood Top 14 team has been collaborating around strategies to help a man, Mr. K., chronically homeless in Hollywood with a severe mental illness.  One our gifted outreach workers at The Center in Hollywood is at wit’s end in trying to find a path forward to help this man and we’ve been discussing how to make the case for a conservatorship to get him stabilized and into a structured environment.  This case study is worth its own blog to show how the system continually drops someone like Mr. K and leaves him to his own devices on the streets until the next time he is picked up and taken to the hospital or jail.  As we have been able to cobble together his story, we have determined that he has been hospitalized already this year five times, and 68 times in the last 10 years!

We cannot give up

People  move back and forth through the grief cycle.  It all does seem a bit messy right now, and this actually gives me some hope.  Where we don’t want to land as a community here in Southern California is at acceptance.  Acceptance means we’ve given up.  We stop soul-searching as to what we can do to help.  We don’t see the suffering.  We stop paying attention.  People move away or isolate themselves or throw up their hands and say “this is the way it will be.”

As Winston Churchill famously stated, even when faced with the crisis of war and an uncertain future: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.” [From the speech delivered by Winston Churchill to Harrow School on October 29, 1941.]

Post-script – hope on the horizon

P.S.  for those who have been following this blog, you may be wondering what happened with our presentation to the state MHSOAC regarding the proposed five-year TRIESTE mental health pilot for Hollywood.  That presentation was heard on May 23 and the OAC approved the pilot!  The next step involves an action in front of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to accept the funding and that will allow the planning year to proceed.   Therefore, in the midst of this messy time with this community ricocheting through the stages of grief with respect to our humanitarian crisis, we have a beacon of hope on the horizon with the prospect of showing a new way forward with the TRIESTE pilot in 2020.

Good news! Letter announcing the decision by the MHSOAC after the May 23, 2019 presentation of the TRIESTE proposal for a five-year pilot in Hollywood. Next step: LA County Board of Supervisors who must officially accept the funds. Date TBD.

6 thoughts on “Grieving our humanitarian crisis”

  1. Funny you should mention grieving, Yes, I am grieving for a loved one with SMI and every time I see a mentally Ill homeless person on the street it triggers my grief. My heart breaks for all these people.

  2. Don’t be so hard on yourself Kerry! You were most likely in a hurry to meet a government official about working on homeless issues when you passed the man on the sidewalk. Your dedication is unwavering and inspiring!

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