I spotted the polite young man who is employed at the eatery where I hang out. I plopped down at his table uninvited and asked him if he minded, but I really didn’t give a damn. Immediately, I asked if he’d voted for president, and before he could answer, I began my rant about the recent USA elections. He listened, smiled, took as much as he could of my passion, and then moved on.
It was then that I saw him–sitting right in front of me. As usual, he was talking to himself–having a good ‘ol time. My first reaction was to take the seat that would allow me to have my back turned to him so I would not have to witness his apparent mental health issues. That primal gnaw that I could be next hounded me. I had seen him before but always with my back turned, but this time I was actually challenged to look at him, to notice his humanity, to notice his golden skin and curly black hair. I decided to stay put because I was a little nervous about turning my back to him. How was I to know that he wasn’t violent? So many scenarios played out in my mind that I became dizzy.
Eventually I calmed myself a bit and looked at him, stared at him. I could tell that he noticed me if only for a millisecond, but conversing with the voices in his head was more important than what others thought of him. Once I concluded that there might be a lucid place inside of him, I asked, “Do you live around here?”
Okay. He answered my question. It’s not as bad as it could be. Perhaps he’s got a chance at happily ever after.
He smiled, got up, and walked towards me. I was a bit nervous, but learning about him was more important to me than calming my nerves. Besides, I had to block my irrational thoughts about the mentally ill being violent. It was a myth. Indeed, research points towards them more likely being victims of violent crimes than committing them.
“Do you have family?”
“What about your mother and father?”
“My mother died, and my father was never around.”
So sad. I knew I was not being polite, but the investigative journalist in me was at full throttle and could not be reined.
“What about sisters and brothers?”
“Yeah. I have sisters and one brother.”
“Do you live with them?”
“What’s a number? Let me call to let someone know how you’re doing. Do you know a number?”
“Yeah. I know the number.”
He was being a sly fox. I pulled my phone out to plug in the numbers. I wanted to beg them to come get their brother before he gets hurt on the streets.
He hesitated. “I don’t really want to give it to you.”
“But you need help.”
“They gave up on me. It was either their way or the highway.”
I didn’t press it. I already knew the story. I saw a picture in my mind of them trying to keep him safe and his making decisions that made it difficult for them to do so. Been there, done that. “What’s your mental illness?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me?” He smiled.
Oh shit. I wanted to tell him that he was sitting in a public place having a full-fledged conversation with his invisible friends. Seriously. But because I know one of the most peculiar things about mental illness is often a denial by the patient as well as family and friends of the condition, I simply ignored his comment. “Have you been diagnosed? Have you been to a doctor?”
“You need help. Where do you live?” He didn’t protest.
“I sleep in the park.”
Oh, Jesus. This boy is going to get hurt or killed.
“Did you contact Camillus House for the homeless.”
“Yeah, but they don’t have room for me.”
When I get home, I’m going to make some calls to see if I can get you some help. Lord, let this child live long enough for me to wade through the bureaucracy to get him the help he needs. “Have you signed up for any social services? You need someone to help you.” He needed an advocate and bad.
“No. No social services.”
“Are you from Miami?”
“Yes. I’m from Miami.”
“How long have you been homeless?”
Jesus! “Where did you live before?”
“I was in college, but it was too, too–“
“After that I lived with my sisters, but they moved to Texas.”
That was a damn shame, but then I had to check myself because wasn’t I the same person who had people who were bipolar living with me twice and had almost lost myself trying to save them and finally had to surrender to the idea that I couldn’t be the hero they needed. Who was I to judge his family? Their hearts were probably just as broken as mine to know that there was someone they loved whose mind was impaired, and because of that, their beloved was more vulnerable than many children, and there was absolutely nothing I, they, could do about it. It was a ceaseless, haunting melancholy.
“What’s your name?”
“Is that N e v i l l e?”
“How old are you?”
My heart wept. “I’m going to see if I can find you some help.”
“Thank you,” he said gratefully.
Lord, please don’t let the police get involved with his story before I can get back to him. As a matter of fact, let me call Camillus now. I dialed the number to the leading nonprofit organization in Miami for the homeless.
“Hello. Hi. There is this young man here with me who needs help.”
“He needs to register with us.”
“He told me that he’d made contact but was told that there was no room.”
“Yes, we have a waiting list, but he has to register.”
A number of things concerned me now. The first was that I had to resist the urge to ask to speak to someone who inspired more confidence than the young lady with whom I was speaking. More importantly, though, was the fact that I had no reason to believe that Neville could advocate for himself, that he could swim the deep ocean of paperwork that it was going to take to get diagnosed, housed, fed, rescued before the look of innocence that remained on his face was obliterated. I thanked the receptionist and said goodbye. It was a bitter pill, but I realized that I would not be able to rescue Neville today, if ever.
I was done eating my breakfast and knew I had to leave Neville. I looked up and noticed he had resumed talking to himself and was now waving some chopsticks in the air. He and his voices were enthralled. I was so worried about him. I decided to make one more call to a friend who was extremely effective at helping those in need and who had a relative she’d helped to obtain mental health support, housing, and other services. She could at least let me know where to start. I dialed her and we spoke briefly, but I could tell that even with all her knowledge, the wheels would not churn any more quickly with her help. She said she’d look around and get back with me. One thing we agreed on was that Neville needed an advocate, and I was realistic enough to know that I was not that person.
I was exhausted already. What had I done — impulsively promised this child that I was going to look into things. Didn’t I have enough on my hands! Didn’t I have some important calls to make and some writing to do! Speaking of writing, I was going to have to interrupt my writing schedule to write about Neville while he was still fresh on my mind. When will I ever learn! When will I ever learn just to look out for myself! Every time I say that I’ve fought my last battle, that I am overdue for someone to fight a battle for me, I fetch my shield!
A young lady who worked for the establishment where Neville spent his days walked by me. I cornered her. “Do THEY know he sits here?” It was just a matter of time before management got tired of Neville disturbing the customers just by his very presence.
“They know, but they’re not going to do anything about it.”
“He needs help, and I don’t mean the police.” Visions of a straitjacket and aggression danced through my head. “I’m going to look into it.”
“The world needs more people like you.”
She startled and touched me at the same time. Her words made me feel all warm inside. Maybe, just maybe, it’s this warmth that causes me to fetch my shield time and time again.
I made contact with a mobile mental health crisis team today, but Neville needs to be there when they arrive. I’m waiting for an employee to text me when Neville arrives at the eatery so that he can at least get an advocate and a mental health diagnosis. The employee never called.
I finally took a break from rescuing myself in order to check on Neville. When I pulled into the parking lot, I immediately began to scan the area to see if I could catch a glimpse of Neville. My heart sank because there was no sign of him. I went inside and bought a few items for Thanksgiving, hoping all the while that he’d be outside at a table later. When I was done shopping, I spotted Neville going to the restroom, and I felt pretty good knowing that all I had to do was wait for him. So I sat and waited and caught his attention as he was leaving. He actually seemed happy to see me and jumped once like a little boy getting a new toy when I told him I had found an organization that might be able to help him. He told me he shows up around noon every day, and before leaving he said, “Thank you so much. God bless you.” And he meant it. His response inspired me because it let me know that while Neville may not know he is mentally ill, he seems to know he needs help.
After he left, I found another worker to collaborate on Neville sightings. He said he’d noticed Neville but he thought he was completely gone and was surprised that I had actually been able to carry on a conversation with him. His views made me wonder if that was why more people don’t reach out–thinking it’s too late.
Note to self: Wouldn’t it be grand if every capable person in the world helped a Neville at the level they could. If that means a blanket, then that’s what it means. If that means food, then that’s what it means. If that means deciphering the bureaucracy, then that’s what it means. Start where you are.
12: 15 p.m. and I just picked up a message from my informant that Neville is at the store. I texted back that I would be there by 12:30. Before I left, I called the crisis team to meet me there. When I arrived, I didn’t immediately see Neville, but I felt I was bound to see him later. I went into the store to pick up a few items and finally came outside, looked around, and noticed Neville at a table sleeping. His worldly possessions were in a backpack that sat at his feet. I took a seat and kept an eye on him while I waited for the crisis team to arrive. I had a book and my phone for social media to keep myself busy.
2:00 p.m. and there is still no crisis team. Called. They said they’re on the way.
3:00 p.m. and I make another call. I can’t believe no one’s here yet. I called and the counselor advised me that she’d been there and went inside but had not called me as directed. I expressed my frustration but told her I’d appreciate if she’d come back. Something told me that if I didn’t stay today, I might not keep my promise to Neville. So I waited and began to accept that my whole day would be dedicated to Neville.
4:30 p.m. and I called to find out what the hell was going on. They were at the wrong location. Jesus! By this time, Neville and I were collaborating. “Do you want to wait?”
“Yes. I will wait a little longer.”
Neville had spent much of the day sleeping, so I had simply observed him from a distance, but now he was alert. I decided to learn more about him, to break my own rule of trying to maintain some emotional distance.
“So where’d you go to high school?” He’d attended one of the best schools in the county where he’d studied music and graduated magnum cum laude. I was impressed. He also confirmed the adage of there being a thin line between “insanity” and genius. He told me he’d gotten a full scholarship to college where he had studied science and engineering. Intriguing.
I asked him about the voices. He told me there were no voices; he was just listening to himself think. But when asked why I noticed him interacting, he said he was contemplating his thoughts, trying to come to a conclusion. He added that he thought his behavior was the effect of being homeless, being around people all the time and not having time to be alone. His explanation made no sense to me, and I felt sad for him.
I asked him what park he slept in and he told me. I knew the park well. It was one of my favorite places, and I knew it was full of raccoons. You’re not scared of the raccoons at night?
“No. I share my food with them.” He smiled.
They don’t bother you when you’re trying to sleep?”
“No. They just surround me.”
5:00 p.m. and no counselor. Lord give me strength.
“What do you do on cold nights like tonight?” I wanted to give him a warm, safe place to sleep, but we were complete strangers, and I didn’t have that kind of courage.
“I keep my jacket on.”
I pretended with myself that that was enough. Meanwhile, I thought what a disgraceful experience we were having. Almost 5 hours later and still no one had come to help me rescue Neville. I didn’t know how much more I could take.
6:00 p.m. is when the counselor and a guy who looked like he could hurt Neville if he needed to showed up. She sat immediately and proceeded to interview him. As she interviewed Neville, it came out that he was depressed. He denied hearing voices, though I reminded him that I, a complete stranger, had witnessed him talking to invisible beings more than once.
I got teary eyed and saw that the counselor and her strongman noticed me. I wiped my eyes and tried to control myself so they wouldn’t Baker Act me! I had heard stories of people being committed when they were trying to get others committed, though I was not trying to get Neville committed and felt like the agency had not provided me with accurate information about the exact services it provided.
The counselor asked Neville if he had ever been diagnosed. He said no.
“Do you want to go to a crisis center?”
“No. I was taken in once and I never saw a doctor. I just saw his assistant. They gave me a bunch of pills and shots, but they didn’t’ diagnose me.”
“So you have been committed, and nowhere in the world does that happen where you’re given a bunch of medicine without a diagnosis,” she said.
“No. My sister called the police, and I thought I was going to jail, but they ended up taking me to crisis, but I wasn’t diagnosed.”
I got a little excited because that meant that somewhere Neville’s condition was documented, that a paper trail existed, which might make it easier for him to get support.
I intervened. “Neville. When I asked had you been diagnosed, you said you had not. You have to be honest with those who are trying to help you.” I felt a bit foolish. It was becoming clear to me that Neville wasn’t ready, and there was nothing I could do about it, and there was no resource that could change that. I also understood why Neville might not want to commit himself to be under observation for three days only to be released with no support because surely three days was not enough time to kick the system into gear for the help he needed.
“Are you willing to come off the street?” the counselor asked.
“I am open.”
“Are you willing to go to crisis today?” she asked Neville
She pulled out a list of social service agencies, as if she’d known what his answer would be, and started circling those she thought might be appropriate for him. It was all so official. I was certain she had become desensitized to the Nevilles of the world. I told her that Neville needed an advocate.
“I don’t believe in babying people. He’s got to want it.”
She was clearly annoyed by my desire to protect Neville, and I had to decide whether or not I was going to let a list for him be enough for now or whether or not I was going to insist that she give me a second list so that I could advocate for him, which is what her agency had told me it would do. How an agency could be charged with helping the mentally ill and not have advocacy as a part of its program is a mystery to me. I asked if her organization were a nonprofit. She quickly answered that it was. I knew my relentlessness had sent them into the cross-your-t’s-and-dot-you-i’s mode. But, I had no intentions of writing them up for the questionable services that were likely being publically funded. Documenting Neville’s interview and offering him a chance to commit himself was all they had to offer. He would be added to their count for 2017 funding.
I was perturbed with the “system,” but played out in my mind pretty quickly what was to happen next. This was not my first rodeo trying to help someone who did not realize how desperately he needed help. It was truly like banging my head against a wall. She passed the list to him. I did not ask for one.
Everyone stood up as if they’d had enough. I told Neville that I expected him to use that list and that I would ask him about it the next time I saw him.
At 6:45 p.m., we all said goodbye, it seems, without looking at one another, and I made not one promise to Neville for fear that I could not keep it because I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to lose his freedom, and I could not guarantee him that I would be able to identify an effective advocate for him. What I knew was that I would check on him as often as I could, and I would do everything I could to identify an advocate to help him increase his chances of a happily ever after.