I was sitting by the window of a restaurant in Chicago’s south loop, when I saw a thin, middle-aged man making wild gestures across the street. I looked around, and no one seemed to be concerned. People went about their business, rushing to their next destinations. But suddenly, the man stepped directly into the line of traffic. Fortunately, the cars were slowing for the traffic light, so he escaped major injury (or even death). As he crossed the street, coming toward me, I noticed that he was intensely speaking to someone – only no one was nearby to hear him. Then, as he turned his head, I could see that his tongue was hanging out of his mouth, rigidly angling back toward his ear. He must have been having a delusion or a seizure. How terrible, to have such a health issue in the middle of the dangerous city streets, with no one to take care of you.
Those of you who know Chicago (or any major city) well, you have already seen similar characters on the streets. To be fair, it is often difficult to distinguish between those who act crazy for attention and those who are suffering from a mental illness. What bothers me is that we, as a society, have become desensitized to it. It has become our “normal”. I don’t have the statistics readily available, but I would wager that at least 8 out of 10 of the homeless are suffering from a serious mental illness. So why are they in our streets?
To answer this, we must go back in time. In my grandmother’s day, the government provided and funded mental health institutions, and those who otherwise would be homeless and untreated had a place to live, and to be cared for. But then, the government began slashing the funding for mental health treatment, so most of the mental treatment centers were shuttered, for good. I personally know of two massive, empty “mental asylums” in the state of Michigan. As children, we were delighted and terrified to hear tales of their haunting.
As I sat and watched this unfortunate man, ill in the streets and with no one to care for him, I felt shame for living in a society that lacks the compassion for humanity necessary to create a safe home for the poor and mentally ill.