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Monica Pickard spent twenty years of her adult life as a child care provider. During that time, with the help of her husband, she raised her son who has been diagnosed with Autism and Developmental Delay. She learned to navigate a world that was new to her – the world of Special Needs. She now shares these experiences and the wisdom they taught her, with love and heartfelt compassion for the human condition.

Friday, February 16, 2018

True Stories

A boy, the youngest of six kids, lived with his single mom and siblings in Indianapolis. His mom had a good job and owned a house. She lost the job and the house. She moved her family out west to Los Angeles where she got another apartment. A short time later they had to move to a smaller apartment. This happened several more times until, eventually, they were living on Skid Row. One day the boy sees a group of children getting on a school bus. He wants to go with those children. The mother tells him that if he does, she and the family will not be there when he returns. He follows the bus to school, but when he gets there he learns a parent must bring you and enroll you in the school. He goes back to his family on skid row, but they are gone. He looks and looks for them, but he does not find them. He is now on his own, on Skid Row, in the city of Los Angeles. He is seven years old.

It is several years before the boy gets discovered and helped by human services. He is moved into several different foster homes over the course of his young life. Each of them physically abused him repeatedly. He ended up in a gang and in and out of jail.

That is part of one of the true stories I read last night before going to sleep. I woke before the sun this morning, haunted by it; my mind wandering into the depths of his despair and the decisions he made because of that despair. The gang became his family. Each gang member is a young boy or girl who has no other family willing or able to protect them, so they form a family and protect each other.

I’ve read this over and over in other gang member’s stories. Who else will be their family? When we see them with their white, brown, or black skin, tattooed and pierced, and their gang clothing, we see trouble. And we want no part of it. We feel okay about that because they are violent criminals.

There is a popular social media meme that says some version of – Never Judge Someone, You Don’t Know Their Story. Or, You Don’t Know the Pain They Carry. Or, You’ve Never Walked in Their Shoes. And so on… We judge gang members for their criminal behavior without knowing their stories.

You just read one heartbreaking story.

It is easy to see how a seven-year-old boy, abandoned on skid row and abused by every foster home he enters, finds his way into a gang, but, the ego says someone is to blame. We turn our judgment toward the mother who abandoned him. Surely, she is to blame, not us. We have yet to hear her story.

To this day she lives under a bridge in Los Angeles. She has schizophrenia. Who is to blame for that?

I remember a Lisa Ling show I saw on the homeless population in Los Vegas. There was the story of a woman who had been given a chance to move into an apartment. She was not sure she would take it because she was caring for several wild cats and did not want to abandon them. She did take the apartment and whatever help they gave her. After three or six months she disappeared, though. She was mentally ill. In that same show, a couple of men were interviewed who seemed perfectly fine. It seemed like they were just choosing not to work and to live on the streets. I kept thinking, “What causes a person to want to live like that?” Across from a homeless camp, beyond a wall and a highway, the hotels and casinos towered above the camp. All that wealth on one side and complete poverty on the other.

In a documentary I watched recently, a young man travels the country on foot, saying he is free from the hassles associated with a typical 9 to 5 sort of life. He is young, handsome, and white. People love talking to him, offering to help him with money and food. Some people invite him to stay with them overnight. He seems happy and free. Over the course of several years, he comes to grips with his mental illness and admits his homeless life is not by choice. How can he work a typical 9 to 5 job when the voices in his head overwhelm him multiple times each week? We expect him to fit into our model of what a worker should look like and act like. It is true a worker needs to fulfill a commitment because a job needs to get done. That is why they get paid. But, why do compassion and understanding leave someone’s heart just because they become a business owner? There is a solution. We just need to be creative enough to find it.

The story we tell to make ourselves feel better is that you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. Why is that? When you try to help someone, every agency you turn to, every mental health professional you speak with says the same thing: Unless they are a threat to themselves or others we cannot do anything, even if they are homeless. I guess in America we do not consider homelessness a threat to a person. Our mindset does not deem lack of shelter a threat. I cannot wrap my mind around that.

The law requires physical harm before it will intervene because people used to have women committed to mental institutions for various reasons. It was pretty easy to convince doctors that a woman was mentally ill. So, we changed the law to protect women and we created another problem. The people who really do need help can’t get it. Righting one wrong creates another simply because people can’t be trusted to do the right thing by each other.

Some people with brutal lives find the strength to survive and eventually to heal:
A recovering gang member tells how he fed himself and his little brother for two months by placing themselves on the porches of their neighbors and refusing to leave until they were given food. This happened after their mother rented an apartment, set them down inside it, lock the door as she left, never to be seen again. If I remember this story correctly, they were five and two years old. Maybe they were seven and five. Either way, that's way too young to have to fend for yourself. We do not know the mother's story.

A gang member, carrying a gun, walks in front of a church and stops to cross himself. A woman sees this and asks him why he made the sign of the cross. He says, “For protection.” She tells him she thinks that is strange because the community is asking God to protect them from him. After hearing this, he leaves the gang and seeks help to change his life.

A former gang member is asked why he is late to work one day. He says it is because he got a new soap and he lost track of time enjoying the fragrance of it.

Another former gang member retells the story of how he and his girlfriend fought all day as they traveled around the city in his old car doing errands. The car eventually breaks down and they have to wait for three hours for it to be repaired. While they waited, they made a decision to stop fighting and to listen to each other, to renew their commitment to each other. He said talking to her this way for three hours felt like paradise.

We don’t often think of gang members as people who could find paradise in conversation or who get lost in the enjoyment of aroma, much less seek help because of a comment someone made to them. We don’t see them as people. We don’t understand that they have the same feelings and needs we have. We are all connected in this web. 

Update: As I read further in this book, I discovered that gang members do not join gangs for companionship or family, as I said earlier. They join because their lives are so hopeless that it makes them want to die. They do not expect to live long after joining a gang. Former gang members come to this realization after they have sought help and treatment for their addictions, their violent behavior, and their extremely low self-esteem. Only after receiving compassion can they look back and see their despair as it truly was.

How can these problems be solved?

A better question is, how can these problems NOT be solved? We live in America!

My mind wanders to Wall Street. All that money floating around. All the wealthy people getting more and more wealthy just because they can, while the poor live in a perpetual state of crisis. One bad thing happening, like their refrigerator breaking down just after they have stocked it with their food stamp money, will put them into a downward spiral. They have no extra money to help in a crisis. They have no savings for emergencies. They do not make a living wage. Many who are capable of acquiring a living wage job – a high paying job, even - cannot control their mental illness long enough to keep it. They end up losing everything they have worked for and achieved. Sounds unlikely, right? I have seen it happen with my own eyes.

We do not want to be bothered with the sight of the homeless, so walls are built between our recreation and their camps. They are asked to leave certain areas of the city where we go to spend our precious dollars. Oh, sure, we put on fancy fundraisers and give money so others can help them. We feel good about that. We did something. We didn’t just ignore them like heartless monsters. And we certainly are not ignoring them when we go to city council meetings to make sure the low-income housing does not get put in our backyard. We are not ignoring them when we push them away. Which is worse?

When did it fail to be our political priority to solve homelessness, to help the mentally ill and the disabled, to give the poor a few extra dollars out of our taxes, to require businesses to pay them a living wage in order to keep them from spiraling? Our politicians claim we lack the money to solve these problems.

The only things we lack are the compassion and the will.

Thanks to Father Gregory Boyle, Founder of Homeboy Industries and writer of Barking to the Choir and Tattoos on the Heart. Many of these true stories came from Barking to the Choir (and I’m only on page 79).
Thank you to This Is Life with Lisa Ling for helping to educate me on many topics of American life.
Thank you to filmmaker Nanfu Wang for her documentary, I Am Another You, which follows a homeless man, shedding light on the plight of the mentally ill and their families.

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