Misadventure into the void

Dan Rodricks

February 26, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Through the phone, Audrey Giltz heard the growl of the streets of New York City, and she heard her son's feeble voice. "Mom," Ron whimpered into the phone. "I don't know where I am." He was lost in Manhattan, lost in the fog of schizophrenia.

And he had lost his eyeglasses.

And he had lost his shoes.

By the time he got to Bellevue Hospital Center three months later, he had terrible sores on his feet, evidence of weeks spent wandering barefoot the streets of the big city of strangers. He was in terrible shape. He hadn't had his medication for weeks. "He was malnourished," said his brother, Fred Osborne. "He weighed about 145 pounds, down from 190 to 195 pounds."

Ron's story -- or what I can patch together from what his brother, mother and a psychologist have patched together -- provides a glimpse behind the dark curtains of homelessness. We speak of "the homeless" as a group, which is a way of throwing a blanket over the shoulders of an amorphous underclass, the desperately impoverished, broken, disturbed people who wander the streets. Who are they? How did they get that way?

This is how a 39-year-old man from Maryland ended up on the streets of New York City. But it is how thousands of men and women end up homeless. They snap. They lose control. They embark on reckless adventures.

Ron's story was reported in this space last October.

By then, Audrey Giltz, who lives in Edgewood, had not heard from her son in two months. He had disappeared one day in late summer, after being released from Perry Point Veterans Hospital, apparently without his mother's knowledge.

On Aug. 16, he made the call from New York. He sounded depressed, spoke incoherently and cried bitterly. Suddenly he walked away from the phone, and the last thing Audrey Giltz heard was the phone clanging against steel, then someone hanging the phone up.

His brother reported Ron missing. "I had this idea that when you report someone missing to the Missing Persons Bureau, they actually search for them," Fred Osborne said. "Oh, no. That's not what happens."

As a matter of fact, Ron arrived at Bellevue in November. But his family did not know of his whereabouts until two weeks ago.

"First of all, Ron did not give his correct name to the hospital," his brother said. "But they didn't check to see if he matched a description of a person who had been reported missing to the police. I made such a report. He was listed with Missing Persons. They're supposed to cross-reference their information. But it was never done. Never done."

It was not until early February that someone at a veterans hospital in Maryland hinted to Ron's family that Ron could be found at Bellevue. "I think Bellevue was getting ready to release Ron to the street," Osborne said. "That's why the word got back to us."

Had officials in New York earlier contacted the family, Ron's stepbrother and his mother might have been spared three months of grief. His brother thinks he made 12 trips to New York to check with shelters and soup kitchens, and to post fliers with Ron's photograph.

"I would go through the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan, park, get out of the car and walk four or five blocks, posting fliers," Osborne said. "Then I'd drive to 20th street, get out and do the same thing. Then I'd drive to 40th street, and do the same thing. I'd replace fliers that had been torn down."

Dr. Bill Canter, a neuropsychologist at Fort Howard Veterans Medical Center, made 30 or 40 phone calls to New York, trying to locate Ron. He had a friend, a Manhattan attorney, post fliers.

The family left a prepaid train ticket at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. Two weeks ago, after he was discharged from Bellevue, Ron claimed the ticket and returned to Maryland. His brother met him at the station. He barely recognized him.

"But nobody can tell me the Lord doesn't answer prayers," Audrey Giltz said. "Ron looks better already. He's staying at the place [in Perryville] where he used to stay. . . ."

"He's got new glasses, he's reading," Canter said. "I'm providing him counseling and therapy."

"He doesn't tell me much about what happened to him," his mother added. "He kind of clams up, you know? So I don't push him. I don't push. I don't want to lose him again."

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