Back in the 80’s when driving to my office, I often passed  a woman on the street who was generally dressed in a peasant type blouse, a full skirt and cowboy boots.  She wore a sequined headband that held back her very wild hair.  In that same area there was another woman whom I called “The Pink Lady.”  She was always neatly dressed, wearing a raincoat of some kind with a long pink scarf jauntily tied around her neck. Behind her she pulled a cart lined in pink plastic which I presumed contained her belongings. She had long bleached hair and I often wondered how she touched up her roots.   There was another woman who showed up periodically at an insurance agency in my office building.  I eventually learned that she, like the others, was homeless.  She had family from whom she was estranged, but who provided money for her through the insurance agent.  When she needed it, she came by the building and the agency owner gave her money.

Sounds like the big city?  It wasn’t – it was the relatively small, safe upscale tourist community of Hyannis, Massachusetts.  These women, along with many others, were homeless.  I saw them on my way to work  because they had been kicked out of the local homeless shelter each morning at 8 am.  They weren’t “allowed to lay about the shelter during the day,”  so having nowhere to go, they roamed the streets until they could return to the shelter at 7 pm.

At the time I understood very little about those folks, but subsequently I was invited to join the board of directors of a local medical clinic which served the homeless  population and there I began to learn more about the root causes of homelessness, which are multiple and complex: mental illness or mental disabilities, addiction, poverty and affordable housing. (Today we can add unemployment to that list.)

The most shocking ah ha for me was that often these folks do have families who care deeply about their circumstances, but when the homeless are mentally incapable (not unwilling) of “conforming” to society’s rules the families  end up throwing up their hands.  I had two dear friends whose family members (one a daughter, one a mother) drifted from shelter or facility causing no small amount of anxiety as the family members tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to keep them safe from harm.  None of these folks received the regular and steady mental health treatment they deserved.

While the majority of the homeless I observed were disturbed but not “dangerous,” there are those that are – and you and I cannot tell the difference. I served as the jury foreman on a case where a homeless manhomeless1 was charged with assault, attempted rape and attempted murder of a young girl at a nearby beach.  He “lived” in that same Hyannis shelter and might have been viewed as “harmless.”  That is until he wasn’t harmless.  It was a heart-wrenching case that has haunted me for years and yesterday I could not help making a comparison when I listened to the news of the Connecticut shooting.   Or for that matter, the “random” shootings in Colorado and Michigan and Virginia, all the way back to Columbine.

When mental health institutions were deregulated, the sentiment was that “these people would be happier if they were released from care and given more freedom to make their own decisions.”  But the truth of the matter was and is, it was a fast way to save money by eliminating the state’s expense and load the burden onto the private sector.  The homeless population exploded. Erratic behavior was front and center – if we cared to look – but we didn’t.

Those who suffer from mental illness were and are expected and forced to make decisions that are beyond their capabilities – simple day-to-day decisions – like buying food, remembering to take their meds or doing laundry. To the mentally ill these things can be simply overwhelming.  Families are no more equipped today than they were then, to cope with the full time requirements associated with the mental illnesses of their loved ones.  Just as the Colorado shooter, James Holmes, was found to have a history of mental problems, I suspect we will learn in the coming days that there were mental health issues with Adam Lanza and there were signs along the way, subtle perhaps, but there just the same.  I can’t help but think he had somehow concluded that there was nowhere for him to go.

But instead of having a fruitful debate about how to deal with mental illness, we’ll have a polarized debate about gun control.  That’s so much easier to discuss isn’t it?

How many tragedies will it take before we really get to the heart of the matter of mental illness? The taking of 27 innocent lives isn’t about guns.  It’s about a segment of our society that we deem invisible.  That’s what we do – we look through them or past them, but we find a way to pretend that they aren’t there. Can there be any more cruel behavior than looking through people whom we consider odd, or who make us the slightest bit uncomfortable because their behavior isn’t quite “right?”  Read The Gift of Fear.  Our intuitions tell us when we are in danger.  I have to wonder about the wisdom of Mrs. Lanza having one gun in a home – never mind three,  if there was any doubt about her son’s stability.  Perhaps she felt she needed to protect herself from her son.

There are no easy answers to this enormous, terribly serious issue and I fear we will continue to have these shootings.  It’s “too hard” to have a meaningful dialogue about such complexities – we’re too busy worrying about our new i-Pads and which celebrity is getting divorced and the crass consumerism of how much stuff we’re getting for Christmas. Speaking of which, every newscaster (I can no longer call them journalists) yesterday seemed unusually outraged that this horrific shooting happened “a week before Christmas!”  Hummm…perhaps it would have been better to do it in March – there is absolutely nothing going on in March – such a slow news month.

My young man from the court case was found guilty of assault and attempted rape, but not guilty of attempted murder.  Because he had multiple notebooks filled with confused and rambling obsessions, we had an incredible glimpse of how he was wired.  As a result, we the jury believed he was incapable of organizinghomeless2 his thoughts to the extent of planning a murder.  But as I read the verdict in court, I could barely utter the words.  I couldn’t help but wonder, had he gotten the treatment he deserved, might he at least have been spared the horrible life he experienced.  He was sentenced to life in a mental institution but I doubt that he receives any better care there, than he got on the street.

My Pink Lady died – frozen in sleep one winter night, not three blocks from the shelter.  I say “My” because aren’t we all responsible for those who are unable to care for themselves?  Isn’t that what entitlements should be for?  Those who have nowhere else to go.