Originally Published on the Huffington Post
Hello. My name is Aubrey. I am homeless and have a mental illness. Please follow me for a moment, I have something to show you.
Be careful stepping over the still half-collapsed bodies lying here in the park, it’s still early for them. Rough night. Over here you’ll see the street prostitute, with her exaggerated painted-on face, bright red clown lips, and those huge blue smears of eye shadow around the beady blood-shot eyes. Yes, she is skin and bones, part of being HIV-positive. And yes, she does kind of look like a caricature of one of those brightly-colored bugs you see in a nature magazine. She’s my sister. Did you know that?
Now see there in there in the corner? There, screaming at the passing pedestrian traffic heading down Camp Street. He’s the first tramp entering today’s trading. “One dollar!” he shouts, as he swings a broken toaster wildly over his head. Soon the other would-be entrepreneurs will enter the day’s trading market hawking wares they’ve discovered overnight throughout the city — broken shoes, old VHS tapes, one-legged chairs, an odd couch cushion. They shout, they scream at you, at me… at the world, as they frantically wave their objects for sale.
Watch the crowd as they give the homeless a wide birth, even veering off into the street of dangerous traffic to avoid the stench of unwashed bodies. They’re on their way to offices, I think, although I never really know where they’re headed in such a hurry each morning and night. Can you see something in their faces? Is it fear? Disgust? Superiority? Recognition?
I see judgment more than anything. But they’re your people, you tell me what they’re thinking. I really want to understand. Are they maybe thinking, “I would never do that to myself”? Well, they don’t have to. If they had their arms or, say, a foot cut off, would they still say, “I would never do that to myself”? Without having experienced pain that was so horrible they couldn’t stand it, literally resulting in the removal of that part, can they really say?
Well, these homeless people are damaged in a place that can’t be cut off or cut out. It is a mental pain, just as horrible and real as any pain, maybe even worse than the physical type. The people in the park are all badly injured, some so much so that you could not fathom the intensity. They cannot bear to be present in their world without something to at least deaden the pain a little now and then.
You say you know how to treat this type of behavior, or at least sweep it under the rug. You won’t tolerate it, so you ostracize them, attack them, criminalize them. You lock them up. By exposing them to extreme poverty, rape and disease you take away the remaining things that make them feel human. You may hope for transformation, but you instead further traumatize them.
What, may I ask, have they not already been subjected to? What further negative could you possibly do to us that has not already been done? I truly want to hear your side of this. I am willing to listen.
Why is it so hard to understand that perpetuating the negative consequences aren’t helping you or me? Is there not one among you who is willing to utter a new word or try a new concept? How about one that has actually worked for untold years, on people and animal alike? Try LOVE!
Time after time it has proven that when love reaches down and touches a life it can be transforming. Have you got it in you? Are you big enough to put the self-righteous parts aside long enough to reach out and hug one of these people that reeks of unwashed body odor. Can you say, “I love you. Now let’s get you home and cleaned up! I bet you’re starved, what would you like? We’ll pick up something on the way home.”
Now go about your life, the stable wonderful life you live. But please, I beg of you, tell your people about my people, those you’ve seen here today. Please don’t forget us.
I think we — you and I — could actually bring this chapter to a close with a lived-happily-ever-after ending. It is my most sincere hope that we will one day meet again. Next time it could be that we have traded uniforms. But know that you are all still my brothers and sisters no matter what uniform you wear. Please know I love you.
Audrey Elwood wrote this article for Prison Lives (www.prisonlives.com), a nonprofit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive. Aubrey is currently serving a 10-year sentence for a probation-level offense after a judge ruled that, due to his homelessness and mental illness, he would be “better off” in prison.