Homeless -- and Pregnant -- and a Runaway -- and HIV Positive

August 01, 1993|By LAUREN SIEGEL

When I first saw them sitting in our waiting room, they looked like any other homeless couple. Then we got to know each other better, and entire continents of problems became painfully more clear.

He was 31 years old, with a prison record. He'd grown up in a "broken home," attended special schools and had an interesting variety of tattoos. He was pleasant, friendly. He also had a drinking problem, a seventh grade education and was HIV positive.

She was 17 years old, a runaway. She was very quiet -- he did most of the talking for the two of them. She had left school in 10th grade. She was pregnant with their child -- and she was HIV positive.

I helped them to apply for public assistance benefits, food stamps, medical assistance cards. I agreed to have their mail come care of me, at my business address. We got to know each other better, and I learned even more: He could not read. She had been hospitalized for depression. They sometimes had violent arguments which left them both shaken. Their IQs were between 50 and 60.

They were arrested for soliciting. They swore that they only did it when they were desperate for money.

I tried repeatedly to get them emergency shelter, but it never worked out. Either he became angry and over-protective of her and had conflicts with shelter staff, or they couldn't keep the bus directions straight, or they got there too early or too late (he couldn't tell time) or the shelter had too many rules for them to follow.

So they stayed outside, in various locations. There was an alley off of Calvert Street where someone had dragged an old mattress. There were friends' and acquaintances' apartments. There was the park. Sometimes, they told me, they slept on top of the Baltimore Arena. There was a certain ladder to climb. There were fans up there; it was cool. They had a piece of carpet.

I tried in vain to get them services through various agencies. I called adult protective services; they had no housing for them, then they couldn't locate them.

I called Developmental Disabilities Administration, the division of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene which provides services for the developmentally delayed. They had a form which had to be filled out, and returned. They would send it to me. When it was complete, it would place this couple on a waiting list which ranked those who were in most immediate need.

The forms arrived; they were more like books. Each was 20-odd pages long, and asked questions neither the clients nor I could answer. The conversation went something like this:

ME: Do you remember where you went to elementary school? And what year you completed the 6th grade?

HE: It was in Virginia.

ME: Uh, where in Virginia? Do you know which town?

HE: I'm hungry. What's this for, anyway?

She gave birth to a baby boy in September, 1991. I begged the hospital social worker to call Protective Services, so a social worker would work with them on housing on other problems. She said she had no grounds to do so, and the baby was released to the couple.

Seven days later, I got a phone call from a woman who had found the baby, in his basket, in a park. My business card was in his diaper bag. His parents were not around.

Foster care placed him in a foster home.

The couple came to me in tears, hysterical. They wanted their son back; they had intended to return shortly; it wasn't fair! I explained that foster care was obligated to place children who appeared to be abandoned, that they could go to court and maybe get him back; I would call, I would get them a lawyer.

He was outraged. Court! He knew all about court. No, he wasn't going. He didn't want to go back to jail. She cried and cried and said nothing.

I had assisted the couple in applying for federal disability benefits, but the process often takes six months to two years. With homeless persons, it can take much longer.

The couple frequently had no transportation to get to medical appointments or to meetings with their foster care worker. They missed court dates, visitation dates. They hitchhiked to Florida and back. She became pregnant again. We learned that they had been exposed to tuberculosis; they had positive TB tests.

Meanwhile, the never-ending process of trying to get services for the couple continued. He had applied for public housing, but neglected to sign his name at the bottom of the application. He could start over. It takes six to eight weeks to process a new one.

I phoned mental health centers. Yes, they could see the clients, but would prefer him to go through detoxification first and get treatment for his alcohol problems. I phoned detox centers. Yes, they could take him, but not until Tuesday, and he had to be there between 8 and 9 a.m., and he had to bring . . . but by that time he was drinking again, or they were fighting, or they were waiting for their food stamps to arrive. They spent whatever money they had on motel rooms, and it was gone in days.

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