How do you feel when you pass a homeless person on the street? Have you ever felt scared around a homeless person? Do you wonder how someone ends up homeless or why they stay that way?
I don’t have all the answers but I do have a story. I am a regular runner, at least on the weekends. During my forays along the Fern Ridge path, I have met a number of homeless people, passed out food, hats and gloves, blankets and sleeping bags.
One particular gentleman comes to mind and I’d like to share what I know about his story. He’s a tall man, with longish brown, curly hair, a beard and mustache. When I run on the bike path, I go with my dog, and I find the homeless people to be very friendly. They are often animal lovers and this man, I’ll call him John (fictitious name) was no exception. Many weekends went by with me saying hello to John and him to me, sometimes John would ask to pet my dog, and at one point, we exchanged names.
It became clear to me, over time, that he didn’t appear to be under the influence and he came across as a gentle man or a gentleman, both accurate. He simply didn’t have any permanent shelter. I find this to be quite common as I talk to the homeless population. They’re nice people, down on their luck, sometimes addicts, and have always been friendly to me and my dog, Mia.
Eventually I stopped to talk to him. I asked him what happened that he ended up homeless. He explained that he used to work in a florist shop. At some point after some years of working there, he got sick and lost his job. It was much later that I learned he has schizophrenia (more on that later). He told me that his boss had offered him the job back, but there were stipulations that he couldn’t commit to. I believe his illness interfered with his ability to meet those commitments. Because of that he stayed homeless. He couldn’t get or keep a job. He couldn’t remain consistent enough to save up a first, last, and deposit to get an apartment with his social security.
I asked him about staying in temporary shelters. He told me he liked living on the street. He didn’t like being in shelters around all the chaos there. It stressed him out. He also told me he was following in Jesus’ footsteps. “Jesus didn’t live in a house”. He explained that he believed he might be a prophet and he needed to spread the word of God. He actually knew a surprising amount about the bible, Jesus, and God. I have to admit, however, that this was my first clue that he had a mental illness.
After that day we talked when we saw each other when I was running. He told me “You’re the first person who has treated me like a man!” I said, “No, I am treating you like a human being.”
Another time I gave him old boots of my husbands, food, an old bicycle, and a sleeping bag.
Another time a friend and I gave him a fleece blanket.
He told me that every time he gets picked up by the police for loitering or camping in an “illegal” location, he loses all his belongings. He loses his sleeping bag, bike, tarp, everything that keeps him warm. This is true of all homeless people. It is astounding and saddening.
One day, he disappeared and I didn’t see him for a long time. I got a call at my office from a probation officer, who told me they had filed a protection order for me!! I was surprised. He said this man had been in the psychiatric hospital, had schizophrenia (or was it schizoaffective disorder?) and he had claimed that Jesus told him he was to marry me. This is interesting because it is so classic of a delusion to have a thread of a connection to reality. He had met me. I had been nice. He knew my name. End of story. The rest was delusion. It wasn’t threatening and I was surprised that they could file this paperwork without me being a part of it.
Later I saw this man on the bike path again. He yelled at me several times “I love you!” I didn’t feel comfortable with that. But, honestly, he never threatened me in any way.
Lots of people are sick. Few people are threatening. Homeless people are people too, good, decent, compassionate people.
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