Walk In Their Shoes: Homeless and Severely Mental Ill

“I couldn’t finish my laundry because the washing machine was saying things and I was scared.”

I looked up from my computer to find an older woman, perhaps my mother’s age, nervously fidgeting with her nails. Her glance darted rapidly from left to right as she murmured unintelligibly under her breath, to a company that only she could see.

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“You like banana? Yes? I buy this for you.”

Despite my profuse refusal, he grabbed two bananas and walked it over to the cashier. Setting the fruit gingerly on the counter, he searched around his pocket, his forehead crinkling in concentration and determination from this simple task. Moments later, he produced a used orange pill bottle – still with the name of his depression medication stamped on it – that contained a neat stack of quarters inside. He poured nearly half of his savings out onto his callused hand.

As I took a bite of the banana and opened my eyes wide with exaggerated delight, his face lit up with happiness, excitement, and pride. His bellowing laughter reverberated through the entire store. It was as if it was I, not he, who had given the gift.

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“I am not giving this back! These are MY plants, you ****

It was not quite nine o’clock in the morning. I stood on the sidewalk of 3rd Avenue of downtown Seattle, getting cussed out by one of our clients. In her hands were two potted plants she had blatantly stolen from our administrative office lobby minutes ago. She had walked into the office lobby, greeted us with her usual update of the world – which included news that she will soon embark on a trip around the world to share god’s message – and before leaving, casually picked up two plants by the windowsill and sauntered out.

My co-worker and I ran down two blocks after the client, shouting at the top of our lungs for her to stop running away. Between our huffing and puffing, we had asked her for the plants back. She said no. At her continuously refusal – which soon escalated into full-blown yelling – we resigned and trudged back up the block as men and women in business suits stole not-so-covert glances in our direction.

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For the past nine weeks of summer, I have been interning at DESC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving Seattle’s most vulnerable homeless population: those suffering from severe mental illness and/or drug addiction. Unlike many social services, the organization looks to go beyond simply providing shelter to the homeless. They, instead, bring together an integrated array of clinical services and supportive temporary and permanent housing “that allows men and women to reclaim their lives and reach their highest potential.”

As an intern, I have been placed in a rotational program where I spent a few weeks with the clinical team, a few with the housing team, and a few with fund development team. Through this work, I have had a chance to interact with clients with a wide range of diagnoses in diverse settings: serving meals at the shelter, directing them to their appointments at administrative front desk, sitting in clinical intakes at the emergency room, etc.

While I have always had great passion for studying mental health issues, work at DESC has exposed how narrow and limited in scope my interest had been. When thinking of mental health, my thoughts had always jumped to diagnoses that were prevalent around me - depression, anxiety, eating disorders. The point of treatment, I had seen and believed, was to allow patients to reclaim their lives and once again be productive members of society. Yet here, “reaching their highest potential” means washing themselves everyday for some of our clients. It means not wandering dazedly into the street and causing a traffic jam. It means being able to look someone in the eye without cussing him out. These people may never be able to add “value” to society, at least in the sense of the word as we throw around in our capitalistic and individualistic world. But that is okay.

From the outside, it is easy to frown upon our clients. Many are loud, disruptive, unsanitary, and sometimes even threatening. They might reek of urine, they might loiter outside on the sidewalk. I admit that I also had very little sympathy for the drunks and druggys that were out on the street, holding the common misconception that their situations were products of their own faults and mistakes.

But if there is anything I learned in the past few weeks, it is that the vast majority of the time, it is not their fault. Many of those on the street are victims of childhood neglect, abandonment, abuse, and exploitation from family and friends. Many suffer from co-occurring severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression and have turned to drugs in a desperate attempt to escape the symptoms of their mental illness. They, like all of us, are trying to lead their best lives possible; it is just that they were not bestowed the same capacities or opportunities.

One of the most memorable lines I have overheard in the break room was: “Everyone gives our clients so much grief for having a bad attitude, but they need to try to go through all that abuse and see if they aren’t that pissed at the world.”

There needs to be a societal shift in mindset when addressing and treating homeless people affected by mental illnesses and chemical dependency. More compassion, less judgement. Walk in their shoes.

By EJ Kim '19 | Staff Writer