Friday, March 16, 2012

Let's Ignore All The Stark-Raving Lunatics, Why Don't We?

America is finding itself plagued by an increase in both homelessness and mental illness diagnoses...and it's only a matter of time until the two become a convergent social epidemic. 

Practically everyday I leave school, I see this one guy standing on a concrete divider, holding up “word salad” messages scrawled on pieces of cardboard. For as long as I’ve been at the university, that one guy has been there, with his bicycle and a small camping store of equipment plopped in front of the light post. Up until recently, he was the community’s foremost “homeless crazy guy,” that one potentially-deranged lunatic that seemingly every medium-sized town in America has.

But as of late, he’s gotten some competition…and in this day and age, just having disheveled hair and poster boards isn’t even enough to guarantee you official status as the “homeless crazy guy” on your own block, let alone the entire city.

A couple of months ago, this rather rotund guy started appearing on street corners about a mile down the road. Whereas the campus stalwart made his message loud albeit not so clear via horrendously opaque permanent marker strokes, this new guy preferred to extol his virtues through the age old art of song and dance. He had a guitar, although most of the strings were missing - I didn’t quite hear what he was singing about, but I guess it couldn’t have been too bad. I mean, shit, it’s not like the guy could have been making anything less listenable than Nickelback, so I consider never getting the opportunity to hear that dude strum his two-string as one of the few regrettable aspects of my collegiate stay.

That transient artiste quickly disappeared from sight, although he most likely just found a new street corner elsewhere in town to get his John Mayer on (there’s also the outside shot that the guy was really an undiscovered Bon Iver at the time, but this is hearsay I cannot confirm nor deny.) Oddly enough, however, he was almost immediately replaced by a new performance commentator, a guy that stands next to the train tracks twirling a Ouija Board around while sucking on an unlit cigar until nightfall. With his bald dome and sickly white gut protruding from underneath his always two-sizes-too-small shirt, he’s perhaps the most hilarious - and disturbing - of the trio. Admittedly, If I were a local public-access channel programmer, I would have signed all three of ’em up for a political roundtable discussion show a long, long time ago - there’s no guarantee that what they would spit out would be coherent and compliant to FCC standards, but there’s no way their “Around the Horn” style banter wouldn’t be top-quality entertainment, regardless.

As far as roaming, wandering souls in the modern era are concerned, I suppose the above three examples are some of the more placid individuals of the type one may encounter these days. Granted, you may not want them to touch you, but you could at least make eye contact with them without fear of having a butterfly knife shoved into your pancreas. This, obviously, is something that you cannot say about an increasingly sizable contingent of the U.S. populace - the good old fashioned,  grade-A, All-American, wayfaring, stark-raving lunatic lobby.

Back in the 1980s, one of the first major cuts under Reagan’s economic fatwa involved expansive reductions in mental health service spending. As a result, a ton of mental institutions closed down, and with homeless shelters already packed asses to elbows, the mentally unbalanced of America had no option but to roam the streets and alleys of the country, digging half-eaten McDonalds hamburgers out of dumpsters and somehow finding ways to publish newsletters that remain better journalistic works than a good 99 percent of the college newspapers you’ll find in the country. With a renewed interest in social services in the 1990s, the number of per capita homeless crazy people in the nation dropped a little, but with states now chopping budgets like Jason Voorhees on mescaline, not only has the number of street-roaming, legally-constituted-as-insane people increased, they’ve pretty much exploded across the country.

Every single day, you’re bound to see at least one or two guys marching down the side of the road, looking like Sly Stallone in the first “Rambo” movie. On more than one occasion, I’ve noted these “travelers” spouting some pretty vocal criticisms of , uh, things, as they march towards their ultimate destination of…um, somewhere. The question I always ask myself is, where do these people end up? America’s homeless shelters are overcrowded, and in Atlanta at least, all the good overpasses are already taken. They have to go somewhere to avoid the elements, and they have to get food from somewhere…and as their ranks increase, you have to figure, at some point, we’re going to have a major, major problem on our hands.

Now, the problem I reference isn’t the homeless themselves, but the system of how we treat the impoverished in America. Being poor, even super-duper-mega-poor, still allows you the ability to partake of social services and survive, even if it is in government subsidized housing. But without housing of some kind - an address for your government checks to get sent, a place to list on a job application, a thing that has a couple of walls and at least one roof to keep bears from eating you - how in the blue hell are you expected to make it in this world?

The reality is, these people aren’t going to make it, because of two things. Number one is the fact that they’re not a priority of the state, who are more interested in taking care of the whims of people that are actually going to pay taxes as opposed to itinerant drifters that do nothing but cost the state money. That’s a sad reality, but damn it, it’s a truthful one - the government is becoming more and more businesslike as the years drag on, and as such, its concerns are leaning more towards profits than people.

The second finger of blame is going to be one pointed squarely at the homeless themselves - and especially our collective inability to establish effective treatment programs to help them. Generally, an overwhelming majority of America’s homeless have mental disabilities or debilitative dependency issues that are tantamount to mental disabilities. The difference between being poor and homeless is generally a question of ones’ mental faculties - if he or she has enough wits about him or her to survive being thrown on to the street, he or she often has the ability to avoid such a fate. In the case of mental disorders, you really can’t fault the modern homeless, but if you’re brain is scrambled due to long term substance abuse…well, there’s a reason we have a D.A.R.E. program, you know.

One of the things that really, really intrigues me about the recession is whether or not it’s effectively driven a large subset of the once-considered-sane American population crazy. It’s a known fact that sudden and drastic turnabouts in one’s conditions can result in trauma, which over time, can lead to psychosis - so, could it be that all of these people that lost their jobs, their homes and their conceptualizations of what life entailed have come down with a form of post-traumatic-stress-disorder as a result of their financial ruin?

Well, shit, why not? If having an I.E.D. explode next to you is enough to mess someone up for life, then I reckon having one’s life savings wiped out in the blink of an eye is enough to produce PTSD, too.

That one guy, next to my school, with the poster boards? For all we know, he could have been a former investment banker for Lehman Brothers. That dude with the two-string guitar? Maybe he was an ex-day trader. Mr. Ouija Board and beer belly? Guy could’ve been a high-ranking manager for Circuit City, or Blockbuster, or Ryan’s, or any of the other nine-billion companies that have gone down the economic toilet hole over the last five years.

Hell, a large portion of the American middle class was diagnosed as clinically depressed before the economic recession, and now we have people going through financial trauma while simultaneously itching for pharmaceutical joneses they can longer afford to scratch. So now we have a massive subset of mentally fragmented, alcoholic, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication popping people with toxic mortgages to help supplement the already overwhelming subset of mentally fragmented, alcoholic, and drug addicted people already on the street.

The mental hospitals are closing down. Regular hospitals are rejecting treatment seekers. States are slashing mental health funding across the board, eliminating entire departments and privatizing services to communities that are untrained, understaffed, and completely unable to meet the challenges of the profession and the needs of their clientele. And for whatever reason, the idea of addressing mental health and its ties to homelessness is one of the few seemingly verboten topics in American discourse.

You won’t be hearing politicians talking about the number of psychologically-scarred people on the pavement, because it paints a negative portrait of “the community.” Likewise, you won’t be seeing established media tackling the issue either, because it’s a topic with so few “invested” consumers. Ultimately, it’s not even a topic you can bring up in casual discussion, because the idea of homelessness is just “too sad” a concept to talk about in public.

The mentally ill homeless are a species worse than invisible in modern America society. They are ghosts we can all see, but spirits no one addresses. Your buddies will turn their heads to avoid looking at them, and find excuses to keep from lending them change. You see dozens of them everyday, but you won’t, and really can’t do anything about it, other than just shake your head and talk about how its such a shame that people have to live like that.

Homeless rates are going up, and so are rates of mental illness diagnoses. Not only are these two social problems overlapping, with continued defunding of psychological services, mental health programs and proper housing arrangements, they issues are slowly amalgamating into a much larger problem for our culture.

And if we keep ignoring them, we deserve everything that’s coming to us.

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