There’s a schizophrenic homeless woman on my block, and I don’t know how to help her

There’s a new homeless woman on my block. For the past couple of days, each time I walk to the grocery store for coffee or lunch or what have you, she yells strange things at me either about how I should get married (I guess I just look single) or, like the last time “Oooooh, look at me! I have a sexy body!”

I live in Chicago. This is not all that unusual. There are usually a few homeless people by the grocery store and the McDonald’s by my house. Sometimes I buy them sandwiches, but on the whole, despite the fact that this is a huge issue for me, I often hope I will walk by unnoticed. I tell myself it is for my own safety– after all, I’m a woman on the streets of a city with an out of control murder problem, and most of these homeless people are men and I have to protect myself. But mostly it is because I’m frozen. I feel helpless. Because I don’t know how I can help them or change anything and that is not the sort of thing I handle well.

There’s been a lot of talk about mental illness these past few days, as the result of Robin Williams’s death. Not only that, but Williams starred in the movie “The Fisher King” and was a noted advocate for the homeless thereafter. “The Fisher King” is about a man who became homeless after losing his mind over the death of his wife, and the shock jock who saves him. Which, you know, is not something that usually happens for these people.

As easy as it would be to brush off a crazy homeless woman yelling at me about how I should get married or have a sexy body as “just the kind of wacky thing that happens to you in a big city!”– this whole incident just made me profoundly, profoundly sad. There is no one I can call to come for her. She will likely spend this winter outside, freezing and alone, all because she has a mental disorder that is not her fault.

Last winter was brutal. Twenty-six homeless people in Chicago died last year from the cold. That we know of.

Over 60% of people who are chronically homeless have experienced lifetime mental health problems,” according to a 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients.

Most homeless shelters cannot take these people in. For the safety of the other people staying there, and because they simply do not have the resources to take care of them.

People used to joke about “the nice men in the white jackets coming for you with butterfly nets.” Sometimes they still do, but it’s a pretty outdated joke these days. These days, no one comes for these people.

The process of deinstitutionalization started in the ’70s and ’80s. Before that, people like the homeless woman on my street were sent to state facilities. Lord knows, it was not a perfect system, and many of those institutions were horrendous and terrifying. Instead of trying to improve these facilities, they just closed them all and left these people to their own devices. Those without families willing to take care of them and put them in private community facilities were left homeless.

Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly stated that he believed people were homeless because they wanted to be, started this process in the state of California while he was Governor, and continued it as President.

While President, Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act, meant to restructure mental health facilities and improve services for the chronically mentally ill. One of Reagan’s first acts as President was to repeal the Mental Health Systems Act and to decrease Federal spending on the mentally ill. This is largely the reason why we have so many mentally ill people on the streets and in jail.

Sure, this could have been fixed by later, more liberal presidents, but it never was. Because it is so much easier to put these people out of our minds than it is to try to do something about it. Because mental illness scares the hell out of us.

I am more afraid of losing my mind than I am of death.

We shouldn’t have to look at these people and think to ourselves “The best I can do is buy them a sandwich so they don’t starve.” We can’t expect a woman that is yelling bizarre things at strangers to have the cognitive ability or resources to check herself into a mental health clinic.

It’s easy and it’s comforting, in a way, to think, like Reagan did–to think that all the homeless people are homeless because they want to be and because they enjoy the idea of freezing to death on the street in a bitter Chicago winter or because they are evil drug addicts who are just going to take your quarters to buy all the heroin. Or to believe, as John Stossel does, that all of them are fakes coming out to panhandle and then go home to their suburban mansions.

But these are people with mental illnesses, these are veterans, both with PTSD and without, these are women escaping domestic violence, who may also be suffering from PTSD. This is not something we can just brush off and ignore. There need to be systems in place to take care of these people. It’s not just something we can leave to charity, because charity will never have the resources for this.

There should be a number I could call. There should be something there for this woman, a place for her to live, people to put her on the correct medications, to give her food, to treat her like a human being. Something in between the frightening institutions of the old days where people were just given lobotomies all the time and the nothing we’ve got now.

If anyone knows of something I can do to help this woman, I’m all ears. I’m looking into it and I’m coming up empty, and it is frustrating as hell.

We need to figure something out, as a country, as far as taking care of these people goes. We need to start refunding mental health services and look into creating new programs to help them. This is not right. No one deserves this.