Howard moved out of his apartment today. He was successfully placed into a residential setting that offers supports for elderly people with special needs. The program is much better for him at this point than was the efficiency owned and operated by the Shelter. But why put this story in print?
Howard came to the Shelter’s front door in September of 1997. He seemed pleasant and slightly withdrawn, maybe understandably nervous about coming to a homeless shelter. Howard was of medium height and slight build, had a nice smile, and was dressed in clothes that were suburban or entry white collar, somewhat ill fitting, and well worn. His teeth were yellow and his general hygiene borderline.
It turned out that Howard had had a life that would have been a prison sentence for the rest of us. While the story is not crystal clear, it seemed that Howard’s parents had kept him home throughout his childhood. We’re not sure if he went to school. It is doubtful that he was allowed to have friends. The initial hesitancy we observed gradually became identifiable as seriously ill developed social interaction abilities. From what we have been able to deduce, Howard was transferred to the position of parental caregiver of his parents. He went from the isolated kid to the captive adult until the year that his mother died (a couple of years following the death of his father). Howard was left with no one to care for, no income, and not a clue about how to manage the house or live independently. Somehow he went from being forced to leave a condemned house to finding his way here, to the Shelter.
It should be no surprise to know that the adult Howard ended up with serious, persistent mental illness. With professional support provided him by a local medical agency and a skilled and compassionate psychiatrist, and lacking a single mean bone in his body, he quietly got along in the shelter and after about 6 months got a housing voucher and rented an efficiency. Aside from not being able to keep his apartment clean without help, he managed to get along this way for years. He developed a solid, dependable routine: get up at the same early hour, walk to the café for coffee, return to the Shelter for a little food and an exchange of “good mornings” with the staff, go to the social club and have lunch, return to his apartment for a nap, watch a little tv in the common room, have supper and go to bed. About once every two weeks he’d spend an hour with the psychiatrist (whom he adored).
Recently, the limitations of what is most likely Alzheimer’s reduced Howard’s abilities even more, and his inability to take care of himself and the apartment necessitated the move to a place with more on-site supports.
And I can’t help thinking, what kind of life was this? Can you imagine how narrow and shallow this poor guy’s experience has been? I find myself reviewing my own childhood and all the school accolades and playing with neighborhood friends and the general Stand by Me experiences; and then of course the college/Vietnam War phase, a summer spent driving and hitchhiking across country, the Montreal World’s Fair, and the incredibly awkward yet poignant learning curve of girls and young women; and the independence that continued into adulthood, with mundane and visceral and awesome experiences in several states and through another cross country road trip; and now a wonderful career that has connected me with the community and provided more support than I could have anticipated. And Howard’s life and mine intersected here, at 263 Main.
It is in fact not true that “everyone” can be “anything they want” in this society. Many of us have a big set of advantages compared to others. How we use those advantages defines who we are.