Her Homeless Brother

Ashley Womble is writing a memoir on Salon and this piece about her homeless brother will resonate with anyone who has experience working with homeless people with mental illness.

“Do you consider yourself homeless?” I asked.

“Oh, yes!” he answered proudly. I wondered if the constant motion of wandering from town to town, never knowing where he would sleep or eat next, helped quiet the voices he heard. If it was his own kind of medication, and if so, could I really tell him that was the wrong way to live?

When the food arrived, Jay dug into the chips with his grubby hands. As he lectured me about the New World Order, I thought about little specks of dirt flying off of his fingers and onto the salted chips. “You can have some of this,” he motioned to the chile con queso. I had a choice at that moment: I could ignore the gross factor and eat with my brother — insanity, filth and all— or I could keep my hands clean and preserve the distance that had grown between us. I went for the chips.

We’re taught as Catholics to go beyond all those usual boundaries to care for the poor and homeless. However, sometimes people just don’t can’t receive the help that they need because they refuse the medication that will remove their psychosis. It’s a tough thing to let go. But there aren’t many other choices. It’s a waiting game, waiting for the day that they sink into a depression so low that they would rather reach out than be in that painful state. Coming down from mania takes a long time when one goes unmedicated and it’s tough to sit and do nothing.

A homeless man who I’ll call “Tom” that I met doing work at a shelter in New York spoke of a brother. I looked at him strangely and said, “Um, hold on, you have a FAMILY? Why don’t you just go live with them?”

He replied tersely, “Well, I tried. But I can’t deal with being indoors anymore. I’d rather be on the streets.” Another would refuse meds staying in a jumble of confused thoughts and paranoia.

I was no help to either.

I pray for these all the time and hope that they find safe shelter, food and can one day “deal with” simply being indoors.

Dorothy Day once said “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”

Each one of us, whether homeless, or those who wish to serve them, need that inner revolution–a heart that is committed to change and often one might be able to cause a revolution in another by helping them see that their choices are not healthy–but when it comes to mental illness, one committed to helping another may need to wait for a different kind of conversion, indeed, a conversion that may never come. This conversion deals with unbalanced chemicals in the brain the we cannot make aright by the sheer force of the will.

So today, lads, let us pray for all those who are homeless not by choice, but by the inability to control their own brain chemistry. We pray for those whose mental instabilities cause them to choose homelessness and distorted thoughts. Let us pray for our own helplessness and for our own stresses when we are not received as helpers. We pray that someone, somewhere may help them and that their help may be accepted when ours is not. We pray that evil does not take advantage of their vulnerability and that justice can be done when it is called for.

And most of all, let us pray that all may be united with those who are alienated from their friends, families and all those who love them.

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