Albert August Wilson

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We as a nation can directly trace the scourge of homelessness in our country back to the early 1980s, to the economic policies of one Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States. That’s when Reaganomics gutted a wide variety of federal food, housing, and educational programs serving the poor, veterans, children, and the mentally ill.

From shelterforce.org: Another of Reagan’s enduring legacies is the steep increase in the number of homeless people, which by the late 1980s had swollen to 600,000 on any given night – and 1.2 million over the course of a year. Many were Vietnam veterans, children, and laid-off workers.

I encountered one of those veterans outside the Publix on N. Decatur Road a few hours ago. Approaching the store, I saw a cop talking to someone. When I rounded the corner, my eyes landed on – and sized up – the broken man lying on his side on the pavement

In early 1984, Reagan appeared on Good Morning America to proclaim that “people who are sleeping on the grates…the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

Uh-huh. Forty years later, that heartless and ignorant statement still rolls off the lips of many an American who has never once interacted with a person living on the streets.

In 1980, The Mental Health Systems Act (MHSA) was signed by President Jimmy Carter one month prior to the election between him and Reagan, which he lost. That legislation provided grants to community mental health centers. At that time, MHSA was considered landmark legislation on mental health care policy.

Once Reagan took office, he wasted no time repealing the MHSA.

How ironic – and fitting – that just two months after put his hand on a Bible and swore to do good by the American people, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, a young man living with untreated schizophrenia.

When I worked in Santa Monica, California some years back, I was astounded by the sheer number of mentally ill people living on the streets in such severe states of psychiatric distress that each and every one of them needed to be hospitalized.

Santa Monica is one of the richest places in California, and, in the entire nation. Here, you’ll find millionaires at a dime a dozen. Still, if you have to be homeless, Santa Monica offers a temperate climate and an exquisite landscape.

When I came out of Publix, the original cop: a balding white man of around 40, with warm brown eyes, was now joined by a young black woman officer wearing a mask.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We’re waiting for an ambulance,” he responded.

I looked over at the man who was now sitting slumped upright against the building and saw that he was wearing a hospital bracelet with the words, FALL RISK.

This was the second time in a few months that I’d encountered a homeless person wearing a hospital bracelet slumped in front of this Publix.

“Did he walk out of the hospital or did they throw him out?” I asked.

“He probably walked out,” reasoned the cop because he was obviously a decent man. “I can’t imagine them throwing him out.”

“They do it all the time in Los Angeles,” I said. “They just dump sick, homeless people back on the street. There’s plenty of footage and news stories out there about it. This happens in all the major cities throughout this nation.”

“And this guy is a veteran,” the cop said. “That makes it even worse.”

Someone had kindly bought the man a meal (which he had eaten) and a liter-large bottle of supercharged electrolyte water (unopened).

I picked up the bottle of water and walked over to the guy. His eyes were closed and his head was resting on his chest. I squatted down in front of him so we could talk eye-to-eye.

“HellOH,” I sang, so as not to alarm him.

He looked up at me and said hello. He had sparkly blue eyes (so many of the homeless have sparkly eyes).  Something long-encrusted matted down the hair of his thick, dirty-blonde mustache. Was it the vestiges from an old meal? Vomit? Who knows?

“Are you thirsty?” I asked.

“No, thank you,” he said.

“Listen,” I inquired, “can you tell me if you walked out of the hospital or if they put you out?”

“I walked out,” he said. “I was there for 10 and a half hours.”

“What were you there for?” I asked.

“Alcoholism.”

When that aspirated H of alcoholism landed in my direction, I was overwhelmed by the poisonous stench of all that booze inhabiting his blood supply.

I turned to the male cop. “He needs an alcohol rehab program with the VA,” I said. “Please be sure to tell the EMS people to take him there.”

The young woman cop said, “They’ll take him first to the hospital, then to the VA.”

When I turned back to the veteran, I spotted his name bracelet, all food-stained and curled edges, nestled beneath his left leg. “Albert August Wilson”, it said.

“I’m so sorry you’re going through this, Albert,” I said.

“Thank You.”

“They’re going to help you get into a rehab program.”

“I think I lost my wallet in the bathroom when I was in there,” he said, gesturing to the automatic doors.

I walked over to the male cop. “He said that he left his wallet in the men’s room. I can’t go in there. Could you go check on that, please? I’ll take your place while you’re gone.” We smirkey/smiled at each other and off he went.

I asked the young woman officer if she answers a lot of such calls. “All day long”, she responded.

A couple minutes later, the cop came out, shaking his head no. That didn’t mean that Albert August Wilson didn’t have a wallet. Maybe someone picked it up or dropped it at the lost and found (which didn’t occur to me until I got back home).

I stood back up and walked over to the the male cop. “This makes me so angry,” I said. The look on his face said that he concurred. But anger isn’t the right word to describe this needlessly-entrenched problem that imposes psychic weight on each and every American. Can we really keep believing that we’re “the greatest nation on earth” when we allow our brothers and sisters to live in such abysmal condtions? Most American dogs live better than the homeless. And guess what? Most other countries don’t have this problem.

I was once in a conversation with my brother about a now-long-forgotten topic,  searching for the perfect descriptor to hasten the telling of my story. Unable to locate it, I conjured up something close. “Have you ever seen the feet of a homeless person?” I asked, expecting him to say yes, of course he had, so I could get on with spinning my tale.

“No,” he huffed indignantly.  “How would I have seen the feet of a homeless person?”

And that, right there, is part of the problem. Too many people have never seen the feet of a homeless person who has no access to showering, laundering their clothes, feeling safe, eating regular meals, a bed to call their own, access to water, someone to talk to, someone to advocate for them, underwear, socks, shoes.

Too many people have never seen the months’-old, caked-on filth, the blisters, the callouses, the shapes of feet flattened by walking around all day long for miles with nowhere to go.

Maybe Albert August Wilson will get his room at the VA tonight and get the medical attention he needs. Or maybe he’ll get hung up in the system again at the regular hospital for another 10 ½ hours (or more) before they get a chance to transfer him and he walks out again.

Maybe you’ll see Albert August Wilson out there one day. If you do, look him in the eye and say hello. Offer to buy him a meal. Give him some money to do with as he pleases, not what you want him to do with it. Say “It’s nice to see you today.” Something. Anything.

Then have a look at his feet. And then have a look at yours.

And then imagine walking a mile in his shoes.

Penultimate

Earlier today, after sharing a lengthy conversation with a man and his wife at Alon’s,  swapping stories of caregiving, death,

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