“Other people may complicate our lives, but life without them would be unbearably desolate. None of us can be truly human in isolation. The qualities that make us human emerge only in the ways we relate to other people.” ~ Harold S. Kushner
People ask me all the time, “what can I do to help?” Beyond giving money, serving food or writing letters to City hall, there are many, many people in Los Angeles who are looking for something meaningful to do to impact our humanitarian crisis. Here’s an idea that might test the limits of your comfort and make some demands on your time: pursue a relationship with someone abandoned to the street and see where this takes you.
My experience in this arena is informed by our work with the Hollywood Top 14 – the most severely mentally ill who were left to their own devices and were often seen as scary and unpredictable. This is precisely the person who needs you to come alongside them, and if you are game, this could be life-changing for both of you.
It is important that I confess that my journey did not progress smoothly. In the beginning, I was frightened by people who were clearly mentally ill because they seemed so unpredictable and potentially aggressive. I had to conquer my trepidation and push past the comfort bubble to connect with the human being who had become incredibly isolated in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard.
So, here is the assignment. Can you imagine someone you’ve seen in your neighborhood, where you work, along your commute? People who are suffering from a severe mental illness are generally not part of an encampment. They are not part of a community. They are alone, often with very few belongings (although sometimes they may be hoarding). They tend to stay within the same micro-neighborhood, not veering too far from a particular business, bus bench or alley.
Having learned from experience, I am suggesting a five-stage plan to engage and befriend. This can take weeks or it could take a year. If you are game, I would recommend doing this with at least one, but preferably two people, so you can stay committed to remaining accessible and familiar.
Approach gently and respectfully. Attempt to be horizontal – not looking down (which creates an element of hierarchy). “Hi, my name is ______.” Wait for a response. Ask for a name.
This might be all that you accomplish the first time. There might be a simple exchange, such as, “I see you sitting here all the time, and I wanted to say hi. Is it okay if I come back again tomorrow to say hello again?”
However, if the person wants to talk more, then try to sit alongside and have a conversation which is gentle and light. “Where are you from?” “How long did you live there?” “How did you end up in CA?”
Name + story
Every time you come back, you connect via the name. “Hi Sally. Remember me?” Prompt them to see if they remember your name…because this will be an important part of the connection. If they don’t remember, remind them. “I’m ____. Its good to see you again. How is your day going?”
Again, be on a horizontal plane, even sitting on the sidewalk if necessary. Perhaps have a water bottle in hand, as that is a nice thing to offer.
Continue pursuing the back story – as that is often something that grounds someone. They may be willing to share details about where they grew up as a child, went to school, what they did in high school. Ask about their family – mother, father, siblings. This is a gentle inquiry that grows over time, because ultimately you will want to seek their permission to contact a family member.
If the conversation veers to what sounds like fantasy to you, remember this is reality to them. Very quickly, you can learn that someone works for the CIA, or is sitting there waiting for a huge tax refund from the IRS. Once I heard, “my entire family followed Jim Jones to Guyana and drank the poison.” It is not a good idea to argue about who’s view of reality is more real; go with it and ask more questions. Often there will be some reality mixed in. It helps to provide insight, and a launchpad for the next connection.
You might ask, “is there anything you need?” Within reason, you might want to deliver – with the exception of providing money. In one case recently, a gentleman I met on Fountain asked me for a flashlight so he could see at night. That was an easy ask and gave me a purposeful reason to return.
Name + story + current situation
As you return, always connect with the name, and reinforce that they remember who you are. Pick up where you left off on the previous visit. Validate that you had been listening and truly heard them. “Any word on that IRS refund?” That will also help you to discern whether they are guided in that moment by a delusion or more grounded in the reality of the day.
Remind them that you know something about their background – “hey, speaking of Ohio, I heard on the news today that they had a massive blizzard. I hope your family is ok.” If that opens a door, you might ask, “what is your mother’s name? When was the last time you saw her?”
Be willing to share about your background – as in any relationship, our stories are shared equally. “My parents live in Texas, but every once in a while, I go home to see them.”
Now it’s time to venture into their current situation. “How long have you been homeless? Have you always been here in Silverlake? What do you like about this area?” If trust has been building, you might find out quite a bit about how they arrived at this place which helps to provide context.
Again, ask if there is anything they need, and tell them you will see them again very soon!
Name + story + current situation + aspiration
As this relationship progresses, continue to engage on the topics that are safe and natural to any growing friendship. Always reinforce that you’ve heard everything they have shared with you – you acknowledge it, and it is relevant. Now it is time to ask about their hopes and aspirations.
“Do you want to stay living here on this bench? Is there someplace you would rather be?”
This might open up a floodgate of ideas. Or, it might shut them down, because they don’t think anything is possible. This is a gentle conversation, and this might take some time. You might hear, “oh, I am waiting for my sister to pick me up. She should be here anytime soon.” Or, “no, I’m fine. There is really nothing I need.”
You might ask, “hey, now that we know your mother’s name is Audrey Jones, would you want to talk with her? There are ways I can figure out where she is?” You might find immediate interest in this, or it might be shut down quickly. This is an area to continue to gently explore, because in my experience, I have found that eventually, everyone wants to connect with a loved one in some way. There might be a toxic relationship with one family member, but as you continue to discuss this, invariably there is another relative – a grandmother, uncle, cousin etc. – with whom your person would be willing to connect.
Name + story + current situation + aspiration + plan
As time goes on, it is time to recommend some forward movement, to disrupt the inertia that has settled in. Depending upon where this relationship is going, it might be something like, “Let’s take you someplace where you can take a shower, and we can come back here after you get into some clean clothes.” Or, perhaps you have connected with some local caseworkers, and they are able to help with some of the basic matters of taking steps to get into shelter or housing. It might be, “tomorrow I am going to bring a person to meet you who can help you get your ID card back. Would you be willing to talk with them? I’ll be right here with you.”
Eventually, to help this person, you are going to have to help them make the connection to those who have the resources. (This will take some research, to determine who is assigned to do homeless outreach in your community – but you can also contact the Department of Mental Health and ask them to connect you with the HOME Team assigned to your area. That stands for Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement team and they are assigned to help the most severely mentally ill on our streets. Our you might check to see which LA County E-6 outreach team is assigned to your neighborhood.) Be confident that you are the trusted bridge to facilitate this. And, if you start this process, it is important to stay committed. At each step of the way, a familiar face, a trusted presence will make everything progress more smoothly.
Finally, if he or she has been open to connecting with their family, this is a positive step to take. It might be through a direct phone call, or you might make the connection with them and relay some information. There is an amazing nonprofit in San Francisco who has taken it upon themselves to set up Face-Time conversations connecting homeless individuals with their families. It is called Miracle Messages…but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to do this for someone.
Please share with me your experiences in making these connections – I would like to capture these stories. Isolation is not healthy and this is the reality faced by so many people in Los Angeles who are surviving each day on the streets with untreated severe mental illness. You can be the bridge to hope.