(From Jeremy Nicholls, JPUSA member and liason to the homeless men at our Cornerstone Community Outreach Shelters. Reprinted here with permission from Jeremy’s Setting the Prisoners Free.)
My co-worker introduced George to me….
He was a fragile old white man; scruffy, pale and scrawny, he had a dazed and glazed look in his eyes and when he spoke, we struggled to find any rationality or logic in his words. George seemed to be unsure who he was, where he was and what he was doing.
And then there was something that made this whole situation worse; this fragile old man, who could barely stand up, was homeless! Yes, homeless! Homeless in the dead of winter! Homeless and struggling to survive. Homeless and lacking any sense of direction. Homeless and sick. Homeless and alone. Homeless and fragile!
As with a number of our participants, George carried a paper bag, (protected by a plastic bag), full of his myriad of medications. He had a host of medical issues that were triggered by a failing liver, kidney problems and sarcoidosis, causing this poor frail man to be rotating in and out of hospitals. The cost of these serious sicknesses caused George to be a very expensive man.
On this particular day, he was scheduled to sleep with all the other men at Epworth Gym. Every morning and evening, these men have to walk a mile to and from their sleeping spot and our daytime drop-in center. As we observed George wandering aimlessly and missing vital check-in times, we knew the Gym wouldn’t work for him and he needed to go to a Nursing Home. We honestly thought he had dementia. We knew, there was no way he would last at the Gym, so we made calls and got him accepted into a local Nursing Home…
…but there was one major problem! He didn’t want to go, he blatantly refused and we can’t force people to do what they don’t want to do!
In response to this new dilemma, we had George to live on the 4th floor among our homeless families. For a few years, we’d been housing about 30 older, disabled and sickly men in 5 private rooms. I must admit, I didn’t think George would last up there also, I thought he was too sick. Our plan was temporary and my intention was to convince him to go to this Nursing Home.
It took only 3 days for me to realize how very wrong I was. George immediately became my number one example of how important these 5 rooms are for elderly single men; I quickly discovered that he didn’t need a Nursing Home; he needed rest, he needed to get off his feet, he needed routine so he could take his gobs of medication correctly, he needed a shower and he needed to regularly eat healthy meals. The beds on 4th floor did all these things and even more; what I witnessed, I’d seen with some other men, but George’s transformation was truly miraculous! It took only 3 days and I was looking at a new man. Here he was, surprisingly rational and looking remarkably healthier.
What was also remarkable; during George’s stint in our senior program, he hardly ever needed to go the hospital. The harm was being reduced and he was functioning well.
Unless you walk the walk of homelessness, or at the very least, view it first hand like I do every day, it’s hard to comprehend the physical toll that never-ending wandering, lines and lack of sleep takes on someone’s body. It’s also hard to comprehend how devastating a lack of regular food and medicine can be on somebody’s health, especially if that somebody anxiously sleeps in the park or on trains, especially if that somebody fears about whether they’ll be attacked and not see the morning. The homeless lifestyle is hard enough on a healthy 30 year old, let alone someone older like George, especially someone who also lives with a severely compromised immune system.
George ended up living on 4th floor for quite a while. During that time, I got to know him fairly well. I got to meet George the father and granddaddy. I got to meet him as a man who’d go through bouts of heavy depression and times when he’d be drawn to a bottle of vodka. I got to meet him as a man full of passion and compassion. I got to meet the real George, and those who knew him soon discovered that he was one of those guys who wouldn’t turn his back on the ones he loved. He told me he loved me, I believed it and loved him too.
The time came when George successfully moved out of Cornerstone. He got his own apartment and was in a good program. He would periodically come round to visit us, where he’d come either to say “hi”, while proudly displaying his keys with a big smile on his face or he’d come around depressed and intoxicated, desperately seeking our help. At this point, his health was starting to rapidly deteriorate and this would depress him, so he’d hit the bottle, hard!
Because of his failing liver, George’s life hung by a thread. He experienced a couple blood transfusions and we’d visit him in the hospital. Emotionally, he would go through some vicious cycles; twice he came to us seeking help because he was suicidal. Once we called 911, asking for the Crisis Intervention Team and the other time Scott and I took him to a local hospital. This particular incident will always be etched in our minds, because as we sat the ER, George became very frustrated that they were taking so long and it was an inconvenience for Scott and I. We told him not to worry about it. He’d been calm, and he looked at us and said “watch this, I’m gonna speed up this process!” He started yelling, screaming, going ballistic and getting in the security guards faces, calling them names. He went over the top, we were worried one of the guards would snap, so we went into “peace-making” mode and tried to calm George down. The guards handled it extremely well, George got the help he needed and we could go home! During this very impressive display of aggressive acting, George smiled at us and gave us the thumbs up. We couldn’t believe what we just saw!
Though George had moments of unyielding craziness, and though he struggled with the viciousness of alcohol, George had this deep love. He’d come, sit and chat with us about many things; how he missed his daughter, how he wanted to do right and God’s wonderful love for him despite his endless struggles. Though he struggled to forgive himself and that made it hard for him to believe that God loved him, he’d allow us to pray for him. We’d pray together. We’d hug. We’d fight his daily battles with him, letting him know he was not alone and that his “mess-ups” wouldn’t separate our love and friendship with him.
George passed away on November 19th 2012; that liver finally breathed it’s last. His life symbolizes to me the goodness and value of our 4th floor senior mens program. Even though the “powers that be” find this program unworthy of staying open in 2013, and even though these same “powers that be” seem to be lacking any compassion for these elderly, disabled and sick men, I can truly testify that it gave George more that just a bed; there is NO denying that it gave him rest, it gave him energy, it gave him a new chance, it gave him hope and it gave him a new life!
George; you are missed and loved,
….and until we meet again, may you Rest In Peace!