Homeless and Mentally Ill

The infamous ‘they’ say the pendulum swings from conservative to liberal and back again over time; from social services to private services, from big government to little government. I have no interest in sparking a political debate on this matter, but I think it’s fair to say that humankind struggles to maintain balance in any given snap-shot in time.  In the 1960’s people were institutionalized in mental institutions for reasons such as being a rebellious teenager. And the conditions in those institutions were less than pleasant (think Nurse Ratched and electro-shock therapy from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest).  In the 80’s the pendulum swung the other way and any number of patients (in-mates?) were “de-institutionalized.” This is an extremely gross over-simplification, but it seems like the institutions were deplorable and wretched so the solution became to let everyone go, mentally ill and mentally sane alike. It has created a state of Koyaanisqatsi, the Hopi word for “life out of balance” (and, yes, an amazing film commentary on just how out of balance we are). Which brings me to what I witnessed today.

I was standing at my bus stop this morning and a clearly disturbed man was pacing back and forth and talking out loud to himself. There are a fair number of homeless living around Seattle Center, near where I live, so sadly this is not that uncommon of an occurrence. However, this young man was clearly very agitated, which was cause enough for those of us at the bus stop to take notice. For whatever reason he chose to speak directly to another, older, homeless man, who was quietly smoking a cigarette.

I should pause here to say I don’t really know if either of these men were homeless and I don’t know that one can tell “just by looking.” I am quite certain the younger man was not in his right mind, whether from drugs or mental illness I can’t say. The older man was a bit ‘bedraggled’ in appearance, but otherwise minding his own business.

Out of nowhere the younger man jumped on the older man and threw him to the ground and started choking him and demanding to know what he had done to some innocent young woman this younger man knew. The older man started screaming at him to get up, but otherwise did not honestly put up much of a struggle other than to try and get away. I had my smart phone in my hand and a bystander pointed at my phone and I suddenly realized I needed to call 911. As I was dialing, the young man finally started to run off in the other direction and by the time the dispatch came on, I told her two men had been fighting but it had broken up (the older man yelled out “I wasn’t fighting no one,” which was quite plainly true and he repeatedly said he didn’t know that young man or the mysterious woman he kept mentioning). She asked if there were any weapons (thank god, no) and if they had left the scene (crazy guy, yes) so she thanked me and hung up. The scene was so startling and disturbing that the bus driver at the stop got out of the bus to ask if the older man was okay and needed any medical help (seriously, I love the King County Metro bus drivers). No one was hurt, my bus came, and I went on my merry way.

Of course this left me with plenty to ponder on my bus ride in to work. Was there a reason this mentally challenged young man chose to pick on another homeless man?  Somewhere in his subconscious did he know it would be less objectionable to attack one of society’s undesirables, or could his hands just as easily been around my neck? These are questions that have no answers, but I was struck nonetheless about the plight of two men who clearly needed help. Maybe the older man was an alcoholic and had ruined his own life. Does that mean he gets to be the victim of physical violence? Perhaps the younger man was an addict in a drug-fueled haze, although I suspect mental illness was more likely the cause of his behavior. Does that mean it’s okay to leave him wandering freely around the streets assaulting people (whether they are homeless or not)? It’s possible both these men brought their fates upon themselves, but in that moment, watching it all unfold before me, I could only think society at large should have done more.

I don’t have answers, only sadness and more questions, but this experience taught me that sometimes we need to be reminded of the humanity of others (and ourselves) and I will carry that with me as I figure out how best I can do more to strive for Lomakatsi – life IN balance.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others? ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.


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