To Be Ignored Is to Cease to Be

RICHARD G. BERMAN

February 19, 1993|By RICHARD G. BERMAN

Five years ago my wife, Carol, and I founded ''Hearts Place,'' an overnight shelter for the homeless in downtown Baltimore. She became volunteer director. Although less than Carol and other volunteers, I have pulled early and overnight shifts, made sandwiches, done laundry and other jobs which bought us into close contact with homeless men and women.

The majority of our guests have not been the ones encountered in media news and analysis -- individuals and families displaced by the economic recession, the dearth of low-income housing, the growing gap between rich and poor.

Most of our shelter guests have been on the streets for a while. Their debilitating problems -- harsh inner ones -- are more lasting than the machinations of the economy. They might be called the ''hard-core'' homeless. Their presence on the streets in large numbers will perhaps last as long as the core values of our society.

Those who proclaim that most homeless people are simply lazy display their lack of awareness or compassion. The grim results of a 1989 Johns Hopkins study of more than 500 Baltimore homeless men and women are similar to those from other major research in large cities across the country.

A psychiatric team interviewed about half of the study population. Alcoholic problems were attributed to 68 percent of the men and 32 percent of the women. Among both sexes, 20 percent were drug abusers. ''Major mental illness'' affected 40 percent of men and 50 percent of women. These proportions sound about right for our shelter.

The team recommended in-patient psychiatric care for over 15 percent of those interviewed, and outpatient psychiatric care for almost half the men and two-thirds of the women. Professional treatment was recommended for a substantial proportion of substance abusers. But for many of the homeless such help is perceived as a threat or is not available.

When the incidences of alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness are combined, a striking fact emerges: A majority of America's urban homeless are afflicted with incapacitating emotional problems. (Even those authorities who believe alcoholism and other drug abuse are physically engendered agree that these afflictions often cause major emotional problems.)

Neglected or abused -- or both -- in childhood, many of our street dwellers had a running start toward instability and suffering. As adults, they often report extreme emotional isolation: little or no contact with parents, siblings, spouses and children, few or no close friendships. An additional burden is being at the bottom of a social rank dictated by educational and occupational level. Some use the word ''outcast'' to describe themselves.

Major mental illness, substance abuse or a combination of such problems translate into the torment of anxiety, insecurity, depression or fear that are only intensified by a street and shelter existence. Mitch Snyder, the late advocate for the homeless in Washington, wrote in the book ''Homeless in America:''

''Inclusion in the institutions and the fabric of our society is integral to our sense of substance, significance, well-being, self-worth. To be ignored, cast out or excommunicated is, in some very real way, to cease to be: I am not acknowledged, therefore, I do not exist. No experience [is] more powerful or more immediately destructive than the exclusion and invisibility that accompany homelessness.''

While a few at Heart's Place pitch in, are pleasant to be around and seem on the way to a better life, many guests show personality damage created by their inner problems and compounded by homelessness. For some, relating to others amounts to a con game.

Others seem able, but have a hostile ''you owe me'' attitude. Sometimes we get tough with them. But we try to remember that a person who remains in the abyss of homelessness, though visibly able, is likely to have serious problems invisible to us. Emotional pain accompanied by resentment is not inappropriate those who grew up amid economic or emotional poverty, then are disregarded in a society characterized by plenty.

Others seem to lack all vitality. They grind along slowly, barely doing what is necessary to survive. The dullness and pain in their eyes is hard to encounter. They remind one of descriptions of the Musulmen, those who in the Nazi death camps had given up.

To people who say, ''Why don't they just go out and get themselves a job?'' one might respond, ''Why don't you just go out and get yourself some compassion?''

8, Richard G. Berman writes from Baltimore.

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