Joe (not his real name) is a regular at the Peace Meal, and if you had met him one year ago, you would not recognize him today. A year ago, he was a smelly, disheveled wreck of a human being who slept wherever he could and ate whatever he found. Now, sitting across the table from him at the Peace Meal, I sit with a healthy, clean, engaging man with a job and an apartment.
I did not need to ask Joe what had transformed him from a zombie to a living person; he offered an explanation to anyone who’d listen: “I got new meds!”
“The last time I got arrested for vagrancy“, Joe explained, “someone in the court assigned me a caseworker and my caseworker got me a doctor’s appointment. The doc prescribed a couple of different med’s, and the second one did the trick. In a few weeks, it was like I found my mind again! I got cleaned up, got a small job, got a room, got a better job, got a small apartment…it’s like I’m a new person! I’m trying to tell all the folks I know ‘Get some meds!’ Or, ‘Stay on your meds!’ Life’s good, y’know?”
It is amazing to think how a nineteen-cent pill can change a person from a street-creature to a cognizant, vital human being. If I have learned anything about the poor over the last five years, it is the fact that great poverty is as much about mental health as it is about anything else. Chances are excellent that the person we see pushing a shopping cart down the street loaded with their entire belongings, or in an alley scavenging a dumpster for food, has a mental health problem, not a morals problem.
He or she cannot get a job because he or she is sick, not lazy. A pill that costs pennies a day can completely change their lives if we are willing to cough up the pocket change to help them. He or she cannot help themselves. It is up to us and our policies on mental health to lift them out of illness and poverty.
The solution to their condition simply may be the right medication for them, not a right attitude. The man or woman standing in line for a meal is not “more than capable of working for a living, they just don’t want to”. They are not working because the voices in their head are telling them all kinds of things, either something extreme like the interviewer is Satan trying to recruit them to hell, or something much less severe, like applying for a job is useless for they are useless and unworthy. Schizophrenia to depression; the spectrum is wide, but the results are the same.
If we want to sit across the table from the Joe’s of the world and carry on a sensible conversation with a man who is supporting himself and contributing to society, we must address the issue of public mental health, along with a handful of other vital factors that create poverty. Healthy Joe is now joining the fight as an evangelist to his street friends, encouraging them to get help. Are we going to help Joe in his crusade, or not?