Dan Bailey, the editor of the Poplar Park Times, was able to get Police Chief Caleb Johnson’s Op-Ed piece into last Wednesday’s issue just ahead of press time.
Johnson was responding to the announcement made by New York’s Mayor Eric Adams that he intends to implement a policy of moving homeless people “deemed to be in psychiatric crisis” from the subway trains to mental health facilities for evaluation, against their will if necessary.
Poplar Park’s top cop sympathized with the New York mayor’s assertion, “If severe mental illness is causing someone to be unsheltered and a danger to themselves, we have a moral obligation to help them get the treatment and care they need,” but he objected to requiring the police to participate in the action.
“The police,” the chief argued, “are already asked to do everything from resolving domestic disputes to administering Narcan to opioid overdose victims. Mayor Adams is asking New York cops to do one more thing that is not what they signed up for when they graduated from the academy.”
When Pastor Walter Mitty read that letter to the editor, he resolved to sit next to Sharissa Hawkins at next Sunday’s coffee hour after the service because he remembered the social worker saying that almost everyone who chooses to live on the street instead of going to a shelter has mental illness issues.
And sure enough, the next day Henry the homeless man whom Pastor Walt had been helping for years stopped in at the office of Poplar Park Community Church to ask if “the Rev” had any of those McDonald’s gift cards left in his desk drawer.
Mitty had been visited by the homeless man for years and even though he was a lay person, he had decided that his friend was one of those in psychiatric crisis. He got along better with his imaginary animal friends than with people.
He resolved to talk to Sharissa after wishing the homeless man ‘good luck and stay warm’ as Henry went back out into the cold.
“So, Sharissa,” Mitty began as he pulled up a chair next to the social worker at that Sunday’s coffee hour, “what do you think about Mayor Adams’ idea of forcing the mentally who are living on the street into treatment for their own good?”
Sharissa rolled her eyes before replying, “Pastor, some of these homeless people do have real mental health issues and because of that some choose to stay on the street even when I offer to take them to a shelter.”
Just then Carla Hernandez sat down across the table.
“You look deep in conversation,” she said.
“You’re right on time,” said Mitty, greeting his parishioner with a smile and then a sigh.
“We were just talking about Mayor Adams’ idea about forcing the mentally ill homeless into treatment,” Sharissa explained.
“Well you know all about the issue of homelessness, Sharissa,” said Carla, who worked for the Suburban Coalition for the Homeless.
“As you know and maybe our pastor knows,” Carla continued, “when our outreach workers approach the homeless living on the street, many take us up on our invitation to come to our shelter that evening, but some don’t.”
“And most of them are the folks Adams is talking about,” Sharissa added.
“Right, and 70% of those who enter the shelter stick with our program, eventually get back on their feet, and begin independent living again.”
“But the remaining 30%?” asked Mitty.
“I’m afraid that even though they accept our invitation to come to the shelter,” Carla said, “and even though they really want to succeed, they have so many issues beyond our resources to help that they wind up back on the street.”
“So what about forcing those folks into treatment, for their own good.”
Carla and Sharissa responded with rueful frowns. “You’re the one who is trained to think about ethics,” Carla began. “You tell me. Is it ethical to force someone to do something they don’t want to do, even if you think it’s for their own good?”
Sharissa added, “I’ll never forget what one homeless man in our program said: If you are not mentally ill when you become homeless, just being on the street for a few months will make you crazy.”
“And that’s why both of us agree,” said Carla, “that the first priority has to be getting people into housing. Without that stability, treatment doesn’t help much, especially if you are forced into it.”
“And that costs money,” said Sharissa.
“Money from either residents paying higher taxes,” added the pastor of Poplar Park Community Church, “or church members voluntarily putting more in the offering plate.”
After another sigh, he added, “And what are the chances of either one happening. Or both?”
Tom Holmes writes a column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.HoHolm