It’s such a difficult life for some! Their reality is extremely different from the norm, but it’s very real to them!
… and that’s what I have to remember ….. Always!
No matter how crazy they may seem, no matter how ludicrous, no matter how “out of this world”, their lives are very real to them. More real than the iPod I’m holding and typing this on. I always have to remember that.
Alexander stunk bad. He had this putrid stench clinging onto him like a stubborn leach, and all the other men gradually drifted further and further away from him. They rushed upon us with a multitude of complaints, and every one of them was justified. Most homeless fellas clamber and fight over the blessed showers and a chance to do laundry, but not Alexander, he doesn’t notice and is simply unfazed by the smell that is causing others to spray air freshener and cologne in his direction.
We had to do it, we had to bring him into the office and lay out the rules; “you gotta shower, change your clothes and do some laundry”. I hate these conversations, especially with a 35 year old man, but there was no other choice, it was something that had to be done if he was going to occupy our day room and cafeteria!
He stood there dumbfounded, quietly and stubbornly proclaiming he doesn’t stink, even though his fumes were making me nauseous. He accused his complainers of being homosexuals, because they were too interested in him and must be sniffing him. He stood there refusing to do what we asked, because he couldn’t smell what we did and believes he’s perfectly fine. I’d been seeing anger ride among the masses over having their noses invaded by this foul odor, yet Alexander was starting to get a little hostile himself.
His response left me with no choice, I had to lay down the law. “To remain in the program, and eat in the cafeteria, you gotta do these 3 things whether you like it or not.”
With painful whining and very slow movements, he stubbornly obeyed. He reluctantly grabbed the soap we gave him and took a shower.
Our dilemma didn’t stop there, as he put on the same clothes. The putrid stench and complaints remained. To address this ongoing saga, we gave him new clothes and a laundry card. He cut those new jeans into shorts and he reluctantly changed. He went to the Laundromat, washed his dirty clothes and then threw away the ones we’d just given him. He immediately started wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing every day for months.
We all sighed, and snippets of this drama continued all week long. What could we do?
There is a deep seated mental illness causing Alexander to live in this reality. There is a strong spiritual reality lingering in it also. I’ve known him for years, as he has drifted in and out of my life, and I know the clothes he wears signify something; something very real and spiritual to him. I remember years ago when he always wore female high heel shoes; he wouldn’t remove them. For a few years now, he has not stopped wearing shorts, because he is convinced God has told him too. A couple years ago, in the dead on winter, on the most frigid of nights, I saw this poor man standing on Wilson and Kenmore, freezing in his shorts and sock-less shoes. I begged and pleaded him to come with me and I’d get him something warm to wear, but he stubbornly and quietly refused. Alexander walked away, frustrated by my insistence!
Since that night, he has been hospitalized in various mental institutions for extended periods, yet he continually roams the city, homeless and living in his “very real” reality. Recently he returned to us at Cornerstone, leaving us a dilemma of how we can love, protect and keep him safe, while simultaneously keeping all the angry masses appeased at the same time.
(As a side note: the angry masses don’t want him kicked to the curb, they want him to be helped, as they do care about their fellow homeless brother. What they are concerned about is catching something, like scabies, and are obviously intolerant of a very intolerable smell. In this room full of many homeless men, possessing many different odors, the angry masses handled his invasive foul odor extremely well.)
I don’t want Alexander aimlessly roaming the city, I want to see him helped, despite the simple fact, proper protocol in many other shelters would dismiss him and push out into Chicago’s harsh streets. I’m glad we’re flexible and can be creative. I’m glad our example, Jesus, is One who found creative ways to lift up men and women like Alexander. He set these captives free, and so must we!
Without getting into all the details, we worked on some healthy creative solutions. We were able to make some good connections and progress. With people like Alexander, there is never a quick fix, it takes time. Sometimes a very long time. We cannot force feed him medications, and they might not even work. It is so extremely important that we build trust, we network with others and he is surrounded by people who care about him. And that is happening. Progress is happening. Realistic hope of holistic (mental, physical and spiritual) help is starting to shine forth. We must continually saturate this fragile man in prayer, so he doesn’t end up even more lost and isolated in Chicago; this massive city that easily ignores and forgets men and women like Alexander.
Alexander isn’t the only isolated mentally ill soul aimlessly wandering our city and coming into CCO, there are many more. Sadly, there are too many to mention. Each and every one is precious in the sight of the One who created them. There’s LaSwarne, who’s schizophrenic and bi-polar, who lacks any impulse control and will endlessly invade anyone’s “personal space” begging or giving away his money. Kwame is riding on an emotional freight train, he floods our offices with tears, laughter, yelling and confusion, trying to control his out-of-control panicking. Lima is so schizophrenic, he hasn’t lived in our “real world” for years, even though he lives in uptown, he lives in quiet paranoia of all the people he is saving people from the vicious North African wars he is always “involved” in. Sam cannot stop himself from all the inappropriate things he yells, his aggressive invasions of people’s personal space and his deafening psychotic laugh that echoes throughout Uptown. Driss is a very large nice man, but as he stands on the corner, his whole body convulses and his arms spray through the air, while yelling unintelligible phrases, frightening anyone and everyone within his vicinity. Joe had a serious head injury that left him in a coma, but as a result, today he mumbles in his depressed monotone, and he just won’t stop calling people unmentionable names and endlessly complaining. I feel I have cheated these men, because one brief sentence on each of them does not tell their whole story, but it does give a little insight into what they each must go through daily.
I don’t have any answers of how to set all these people free from these debilitating mental illnesses. I wish I could pray a prayer or give them a magic potion to instantly release them, but that’s not happening. Jesus, through His mercy and grace, has and will deliver some of them from their bondage, but many still remain. I lift them up with my weak fragile prayers, knowing God’s love saturates them, because they are His children and Jesus proclaimed that the “poor in spirit shall occupy His Kingdom”. Yet in all this, I look at Alexander, in all his craziness and weakness, and see a man who lives with a remarkably strong faith; a faith which shames my own.
Now let’s be real: Despite the spiritual reality which proclaims “the first shall be last, and the last, first”, their present natural state can be torturous, to say the least. Alexander will probably never be a full functioning member of society. With this mind: I believe our vocation, as believers in Jesus, is to reduce their harm and to LOVE them. The reality of a righteous prayer for deliverance may not work, medication may not work, hospitalization may not work, prison may not work and “being strict” may not work. The reality is; there may be nothing in this natural world that delivers these poor souls from their bondage and into the freedom we expect them to have. Prayer needs to flow from us, because these men and women are so distant and all answers have vanished from our midst.
I believe our goal is “harm reduction”, helping them function a little better in this world that scoffs their mere existence; it may mean helping them not freeze to death, or get an apartment, eat some food or communicate without getting smacked in the face. It may also mean helping them not wind up in jail for merely flailing their arms in public or taking too long in a bathroom. Harm reduction obviously varies on the need and the person.
Our goal can’t be to make them just like us, our goal needs to be to show them they’re accepted just as they are. Our goal is to show them they are loved. We need to remember: Some of our most mentally ill people are the happiest and joyful folk alive!
We need to love them with a kingdom love that defies all of life’s rules! This kind of love is the revolutionary agape type of love Jesus spoke of, because it calls the rejected, the dejected and the estranged, special and important.
…. and that’s what Jesus, our loving Provider and Deliverer, calls us to do and BE!