It is easy to be lost in place, and he is. Well at least, I console myself, he isn’t lost in Jesus Land. He isn’t wearing a tin-foil hat. He isn’t sitting up all night in some fast food restaurant like McDonald’s trying to avoid the streets, waiting for the time when he can return to the camper after its resident goes to work. He might have been able to rest during the day, to sleep while the voices say, no one loves you, you are worthless. He lives with me now, so he does not have to go hungry.
Our refrigerator is well-stocked. The freezer is filled with Amy’s frozen lasagna, macaroni and cheese with broccoli, enchiladas with beans and rice, and all manner of organic meals. He won’t be stealing sandwiches out of grocery stores. He will not have cops pushing and bullying him for staring at cars. He will not be beaten up by law enforcement for hanging out in airports. Police will not be dislocating his shoulder while pulling him over on a side-walk. It is common for police to treat the homeless and the mentally ill as criminals. When someone is both, it is a double whammy– cruisin’ for a bruisin’.
Ironically, the prison system saved him by giving him pills and shots, and after five months in one of the worst prisons in the country, a prison psychiatrist called to say, “Your son asked if we could call you. He has been here for four months and finally his medication is taking effect. He gave us his name and your number. He told us about his childhood and his family. He wants to know if you will pay for his bus ticket home.” My son had been missing for two years and finally a phone call came. “What happened?” I asked. “Why was he arrested?” The woman doctor, who was working with thousands of mentally ill inmates at a time, explained my son had been arrested for stealing a sandwich from a grocery store. “He has schizophrenia.” She told me what I had suspected for several years.
In the City of Angels, every night hundreds of homeless people are arrested for petty crimes, rounded up, put on “the chain” and herded by bus into Los Angeles County Jail’s Twin Towers. Here, most of them become generic inmates, John Does, locked up and irrelevant. When you are mentally ill and homeless and caught stealing a sandwich from the corner store, you will be arrested. You are now put into the system called mass incarceration. You will do your time in a cold, cruel, and unforgiving cage of steel and concrete. Then you will then be released onto the street, only to return the next time you steal a sandwich. As a society, we are failing to address this shadow, to walk our talk, to be who we claim to be.
Even the warden has admitted that his prison has become housing for the mentally ill. Our country’s resources for both mental health issues and homelessness have been demolished as resources are funneled away from services to a bloated military and tax cuts for the wealthiest human beings to have ever inhabited our planet. Mass incarceration is a draconian blight on this country, and if you are poor and deemed crazy, you are prey. You will become part of a revolving door prison system that offers no hope for treatment, care, or respect for humanity. Being mentally ill and homeless are two strikes that can result in tossing the vulnerable away.
We have become desensitized to tent cities. The population of homeless people sleeping on cardboard and dumpster diving is now a new normal. This demographic has no voice. Its greatest crime is making us uncomfortable. We have corralled them into Skid Rows, so we do not have to stuff down the guilt when passing them on the streets. We are well-fed and they are hungry, we sleep indoors while they live in tents, under bypasses, and on sidewalks. They are generic people. We deny our collective shame, becoming numb to the sufferings of others, to the fact that our country refuses to share its bounty. The richest country in the history of the world is not civilized, but immature and undeveloped in spirit.
I have a beautiful son who got lost. There are thousands of mentally ill and homeless men, women and children who will not be found or who will never find safety. He was lucky. He was also privileged. And yet, he is still lost in place. That place is a mind that torments him and tethers him to a couch and a television. But, for him there is hope. Our state still has Medicaid and he can get the medicine that helps keep him stable. He can get the health care and the counseling he needs.
My son recently said to me, “I wish I could get better, so I could talk.” He has disappeared into Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. I am sometimes ashamed to admit I am grateful he does not want to leave the house on his own. Sometimes, I’m afraid he will disappear again and get lost in the streets, that he will forget to come home, that he will become prey in this “brave new world.”