He Was Drunk, so We're off the Hook

J. PETER SABONIS

January 07, 1992|By J. PETER SABONIS

One week before Christmas, the world became too cold for Isaac Hancock. Behind a vacant building on East Fayette Street, midway between the spires of City Hall and Johns Hopkins Hospital, the homeless man froze to death.

In becoming the first fatality among the city's homeless this winter, Isaac held a certain distinction that he lacked in life. But his 15 minutes of fame evaporated with the media's report that Isaac was a drunk, that his death apparently was induced by a bout of heavy drinking and that empty shelter beds existed at the ''Mission,'' just blocks away.

Thus instead of being canonized in the media, as are so many victims of misfortune, Isaac was portrayed by relatives, friends and public officials in The Sun and on television as a pathetic man who knew enough to come in from the cold, but chose to stay outside with his bottle.

For the governor, the mayor, the police, the homeless shelters, the social workers and even the rest of us, it is important that Isaac was a drunk. Because then his death was a ''suicide'' of sorts, and all of us are absolved of any complicity or responsibility.

Granted absolution, the state can continue to slash and ''reform'' social services in ways that it admits will increase homelessness.

The city can continue to spend less than 1 percent of its operating budget on homeless services -- a figure that pales in comparison to other East Coast cities and Maryland counties.

The private social service agencies and homeless shelters, desirous of ensuring a steady flow of public and private donations, can continue to hold their tongues about public policies that do nothing but increase their workloads beyond capacity, forcing them to set priorities among the needy.

And the rest of us can continue to avert our eyes, fixing them instead on our tax assessments and the mirage of government as the root of all evil.

Yet Isaac Hancock was not just a drunk. He was a human being, one without housing who unfortunately happened to exist in a country where the right to the basic necessities of life is tied to a person's behavior rather than to the simple fact of his or her existence.

The media neglected to mention that most homeless shelters -- including the Missions -- refuse admittance to individuals who are intoxicated. The media also neglected to mention that most middle-aged homeless men with substance-abuse problems like Isaac were once entitled to three days of in-patient detoxification under the state Medical Assistance program. November state budget cuts have eliminated this coverage, now leaving such treatment to the discretion of the hospitals, who must write it off as bad debt. In short, even if Isaac wanted to beat his addiction, his chance of getting treatment was slight.

This is not to absolve Isaac of any responsibility for his behavior. He was an intelligent, capable man, an avid reader, who had the wherewithal to represent himself before the Motor Vehicle Administration and have his license reinstated four years ago after I told him his case was a loser. He was a proud man, who generally eschewed public assistance in favor of working low-wage jobs through the labor pools. But he was a man shackled and defined by his addiction.

Two weeks before his death, I happened to see Isaac in a hospital emergency room. Despite his upset stomach, shakiness and dizziness -- the very symptoms displayed by the patient who was seen and treated before him -- Isaac was given an insolent interrogation, loud enough for all to hear, focusing on his alcoholism. No doubt, his unkempt appearance and smell had much to do with the reception he received and the hospital staff's refusal to treat him.

But this is not surprising. Today it seems we can't spare the time to go beyond what meets the eye with the poor and homeless. Judgment is more expedient. And that's why we can treat them simply as objects of fiscal belt-tightening and reform.

Long ago in the Bible there was another Isaac, led to a mountaintop by his father, Abraham, to be sacrificed pursuant to God's instructions. But God, upon seeking Abraham's obedience, had a change of heart and set a ram in the thicket to take Isaac's place.

There was no ram nearby to stop the knife of winter from descending upon Baltimore's Isaac. But the location of his frozen tomb -- next to the thicket of city government, the health-care industry and the Mission's private charity -- argues otherwise. Isaac, it seems, was simply too drunk to hear their offers of assistance.

With this judgment in place, we can avoid the uncomfortable thought that Isaac did cry out for help, but our fiscally strapped governments, our payment-conscious hospitals, our overburdened private charities and even our tax-fearing selves chose him to be sacrificed instead.

J. Peter Sabonis is an attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

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