One of my clients, lets call him for the sake of anonymity Mr. X, was going through a bit of a funk - something that he half jokingly described as a "mid-life crisis." He enjoyed a successful career, but had started to ask those big questions. You know the ones: "What's it all about? Who am I?
What is the meaning of my existence?"
He was searching for a more authentic and deeper sense of identity, something that defined his heart beyond the accolades of a stellar professional life.
One of the best ways I have found to better connect with my soul and my mojo is to do some volunteer work for a charity I feel passionate about. I challenged Mr. X to find a charity or a cause where he could give back to his community on a weekly basis.
At this same time, I too was feeling as though I wasn't doing enough to help homeless youth in this city. I told him I would join him. We committed to going to a shelter for homeless youth once a week, and to doing an exercise and goal setting class.
It was an eye opening experience and a soul opening reality check.
I could give you any number of strange and wonderful tales from my time there, but here's an example of this one kid I approached at the Drop-In Center. He was eating his lunch one burning hot summer afternoon:
"Hey there? How are you feeling?" I said. "Do you wanna do some push-ups with me. I always feel a lot less anxious when I exercise. We can record how many you do and then next week you can try and beat your number?"
"What do you mean record?" he asked suspiciously.
"I mean I'll just write it down."
"You know, it's interesting. I just went into a gym and they wanted to put me in their computer."
"Oh cool. You went to a gym?"
"Yes and they wanted to put me in the system but you know, that is when the computers start to talk to you?" - at this point, I experienced a sudden pang of sadness as I realized that this kid is going through some deep psychosis. "Yeah, Hitler predicted that computers could talk. He knew that all the black people would mess stuff up."
I could feel the psychotic hate emanating from him - that feeling of violence in his mind, both scary and oh so palpable. He could hurt someone, hurt himself. Hell, he is hurting. This "racist" kid is Afro-American himself - a terrible irony born of his sad madness.
Having worked at this shelter now for nine months, the problem seems clear: A distinct lack of compassion on our behalves, and a severe lack of mental health services for the homeless.
From Senator Marco Rubio recounting his family's immigration story from Cuba to Governor Chris Christie recounting how his hard-working folks lifted themselves up out of poverty, so many politicians promote the idea that people should be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
But this philosophy simply cannot be applied to the homeless. The people in question have no boots with straps to pull themselves up with - no means of finding the footing needed to gain some much needed traction to their lives.
Having suffered with mental illness and having grown up with mental health issues in my family, I have boundless sympathy for those who are trapped inside this painful state of mind. The thing is, many homeless youths I have met have no developed sense of who they are, let alone possess the ability to comprehend the notion of self-improvement. The idea of "finding yourself" when you're young is difficult even when you have a home, and friends and a loving family - without a home, without friends and without a family, it's virtually impossible.
Throw atop that, though, the effect of hard drugs taken to self-medicate, and the result is a seemingly endless and vicious cycle of pain. With around 26% of the nation's homeless population mentally ill, and 34% with chronic substance abuse issues, homeless people first and foremost need access to medical care and substance abuse programs.
They're sick and they need healing.
Drugs, essentially, are their attempt at normality, and self-medication is their only means to escape for a while the nightmares that are playing and replaying in their brains. Is it any wonder, therefore, that these kids are dying with all too disturbing a frequency. For three or four weeks in a row at the shelter, there was a memorial service for a kid that passed away.
How is this acceptable?
But beyond the ethical debate stemming from our lack of compassion lies practical considerations, such as the visible lack of community support for those with mental illness.
The Los Angeles Homeless Authority found close to 9,000 homeless youth on the street. But the city has a grand total of four drop-In centers, one temporary shelter with six beds, five transitional living programs with 97 beds, two street outreach programs, one jobs program, and one education program. Anyone should be able to see that this is wholly inadequate.
There are many factors making the logistics of dealing with this problem difficult. Funding is arguably the greatest hurdle. Co-ordinating different services is another, as is bureaucratic red-tape. But one number we can all agree on is that the count of kids living on the streets should be Zero.
The more we understand and bond as a community, however, the better we can make inroads on this complex tragedy.
If you know the directions to somewhere, you share them. If you know your way in the world, its time to help those less fortunate than yourselves. If you have knowledge that is useful for others, make use of that knowledge. I know that Mr. X has discovered a new positive perspective towards life through exercising his humanity. I encourage you to do the same.