At 8 p.m. last night it was 12 degrees. And it’s March – not January. Together we’ve experienced one of the longest, most frigid, and snowiest winters in history.
I don’t really want to talk about the weather. But I do want each of us to stop for a second and think about a time this winter: Think about the 10 minutes it took you to walk from your office to your car on a blustery cold day. Your cheeks froze. Your fingers and toes hurt and you couldn’t wait to seek shelter from the wind.
What if you didn’t have a home. If you didn’t have a place where you could crank the heat, pull up the blankets, and settle in with a cup of tea.
What if, at sun down, you had stand in line for hours with the hopes-not the guarantee – that you could get a mat to sleep on at a shelter. A mat, by the way, that is only three inches thick. A mat that is placed in an open room – flanked on each side by strangers – only five inches from you. Clutching all that belongs to you, in a bag or a backpack.
Mark Swann, the executive director at Preble Street in Portland, said, one day this winter, there were 282 people who showed up for one of the 142 mats. The math on this one is easy: 140 people were left to find shelter elsewhere that night. Some slept on the floor of the soup kitchen down the street. Others, had to sit up in chairs all night at city offices. And, a few others waited at the shelter – hoping a mat would open up. One person waited 11 hours; only to lay his head for two hours before the morning came, and the shelter closed for the day.
Who chooses this?
The answer is, nobody.
Nobody chooses to be homeless. Nobody chooses to be mentally ill. Not one of the 282 people who lined up at the Oxford Street Shelter that night was trying to get away with something. Nobody working at the shelter or the city who is trying to provide life-saving shelter is trying to get away with something.
At its core, this service of providing EMERGENCY shelter is serving the most basic and fundamental and crucial needs of humanity.
Yet, in recent weeks, it’s become a political football. The LePage administration has attempted to garner salacious headlines by vilifying the people who utilize the shelter, and also those who provide the service.
It’s not an easy story to tell. Why? Because we are talking about mental illness. We are talking about diseases like Schizophrenia.
Recently the City of Portland studied 30 of the so-called "long stayers" at the shelters. What did they find? All of them, 100% had serious and persistent mental health issues – often untreated. Some had money in the bank. Some even had thousands of dollars in the bank.
What does this mean?
It could mean many things.
For some, it means that perhaps a special account was set up by family members to put money aside for them. Perhaps intended to pay for things like dental and medical care.
For some, it could be the remnant of another time in their life – before they got sick.
For all, it is money that – because of their psychosis, they are unable or unwilling to use.
They are not staying at homeless shelters to save a buck. They are staying there because they believe staying at a shelter is the best option available to them.
And … most importantly, they are not numbers on someone’s spreadsheet. They are our brothers and sisters, our parents, our aunts and uncles. They are our fellow human beings living much more difficult lives than we can imagine.
Mental illness is not easy to understand. But it is something that we all need to take a closer look at. We can’t be afraid of it. And most of all, we can’t play the blame-game – that serves no purpose other than to distract and delay from a meaningful solutions-based dialogue.
Long before this administration, the mental health system in Maine has been broken. The overflowing shelters in our state is one symptom of that – as are our jails – that are also overflowing with people who would benefit more from mental health intervention and treatment.
As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee and a former member of the state’s Criminal Justice Committee, I can tell you that there are dozens of lawmakers who are interested in solving this problem and helping our fellow Mainers who are suffering. But the first step toward a solution has to be one that is honest.
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland
(Editor’s note: This letter was excerpted from a radio presentation by Sen. Haskell, available at http://www.mainesenate.org.)