Wissot: When sanity is helpless in the face of insanity
I went on my daily run a few days ago in Denver. I ran down the length of the 16th Street Mall as I often do when I’m here and not in Vail. It’s a distance of four miles both ways from my condo near the Denver Art Museum.
Homeless people are a common a sight on the mall, as familiar as the office workers, shoppers, tourists, skateboards, turbo-charged scooters and bicycles are on this popular pedestrian-friendly strip.
I’ve been running past homeless people in the light of morning and the dark of night ever since I moved to the neighborhood three years ago. The homeless are not monolithic.
They include families living on the streets because they had no where else to go; petty thieves predatory in nature seeking victims to prey upon; alcoholics and drug addicts; and the visibly mentally ill. Of all the homeless, the mentally ill command the most attention. It is hard to ignore solitary screaming, cursing and hysterical laughter.
Less than two miles into my four-mile run, I witnessed four incidents of homeless people in the throes of psychotic episodes. As I turned onto 16th Street from Broadway, a white woman was furiously engaged in a volatile argument with someone who was nowhere to be seen..
By the time I reached California Street, a Black man was screaming and punching the railing of the light rail line on the corner. He was reigning a bombardment of blows on the railing for reasons we will never know.
When I arrived at 16th and Wynkoop, three police squad cars and an EMS ambulance were blocking the intersection. A Black woman was handcuffed and sobbing uncontrollably. Several police officers comforted her, having recognized she was a menace to no one but herself.
Four blocks later while running back I crossed Market and saw a young white man lying on his back in the street. He was stripped to the waist. his mouth bloodied, punching himself in the face. Two police officers hovered over him blocking the stares of curious passersby.
A white woman, Black man, Black woman and white man were involved in the four incidents, indicative of the fact that mental illness among the homeless is not circumscribed by race or gender.
Not all the mentally ill homeless are subject to full throttle public meltdowns, but neither are many ready to impress on a job interview.
Those of us with compassion for the homeless find the current situation untenable. We don’t want them to suffer and die on our city streets, but neither do we want them to turn our parks, open spaces and sidewalks into garbage-strewn campgrounds. Animal wildlife in the country is inspiring; human wildlife in our cities is distressing.
It is amazing to me that we sent a man to the moon over 50 years ago, came up with vaccines in less than nine months for the worst pandemic in 100 years, and yet are baffled when it comes to finding a workable solution for treating homeless mentally ill people.
In the past we adopted an “out of sight out of mind” approach. We placed the homeless in jails for vagrancy, debtors prisons for poverty, and warehoused the insane in draconian looking dungeons; scenes artfully depicted in a Dickens novel or a musical like “Les Miserables.”
We’ve rejected those practices as cruel and inhumane. Denver voters approved a sales tax increase last November to pay for much-needed homeless housing. But until that promised housing becomes a reality, the homeless will remain a visible day and night presence on the city’s sidewalks. And the mentally ill among them who refuse to take their medication will howl at the stars like a mad King Lear cursing the heavens for drenching him in a storm.
My removal from their reality keeps me from knowing the depths of what the mentally ill experience and my lack of smarts stands in the way of a solution that would help them.
While I do question their sanity, I don’t question their humanity. Like the jellicle felines left to roam the back alleys and abandoned London theaters in the musical “Cats,“ I believe they “just want to be wanted.”
Thirty five years ago I boarded a train in the London Underground at rush hour and found to my astonishment that the car was empty. It didn’t take me long to discover why. Sitting on one end of the car was this disheveled looking man covered in blankets. As I unknowingly walked towards him, a smell so repugnant that it made me nauseous forced me to run to the other end of the car where a mass of passengers were huddled to escape the stench.
Sitting in stolid silence the man seemed to be letting us know that he had lost all regard for what the world thought of him because he had lost all regard for the world.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.