GUEST POST: Kansas City man strives to help homeless people living with mental illness

By Jason Miller
Meant to Live Guest Writer

Because of my Bipolar Disorder, addictions, and tumultuous life - putting me in highly precarious emotional, financial, and physical situations - I have always felt that homeless people were kindred souls to me. For three years, I went to weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at a detox facility, and many of the patients and returning out-patients I met there were, or had been, homeless.

The fact that homelessness exists in one of the wealthiest nations in the world has troubled me deeply. So few have so much. While so many have so little.

So on Feb. 6 of this year, I set out to find the poor in Kansas City. Bearing in mind that in 2016 there were 566,000 homeless people in the U.S., one third of whom suffered from serious mental illnesses, I set out to find MY people. And to treat them like human beings. Instead of looking away or walking by them with callous disregard...or perhaps even going so far as to chastise them for not “having a job"...I set out to engage them in conversation — asking them who they were, how they got in such a spot, and offering love, support, prayer, and some basic provisions.

My trek started in the West Bottoms. Decaying infrastructure, graffiti, debris, and trash surround the crumbling, deserted buildings that form the collective landscape of this blighted slice of Kansas City. There are some businesses thriving in this quasi-ghost town, so there are blessed, “homed” people like me there during the day. But the round-the-clock denizens of the West Bottoms are homeless.

I encountered a homeless encampment in the sparsely wooded area bordering this semi-dystopian city scape. Blankets, tarps, mattresses, and improvised “roofs” were piled, stretched and tied off to tree branches to create makeshift tents and shelters. Five men had carved a “home” into the steep embankment that dropped from the road down to the train tracks at the hill’s base. Climbing down this snowy earthen slope, hardened and slickened by the 15 degree temperature, was a bit treacherous. And there were a good deal of both utilitarian items (i.e. rope, tools, clothes, pots, plates) and an abundance of trash that nearly ensured that I would fall on my face. Fortunately, I didn’t.

It was with gratitude and compassion that I met Cowboy, Tom, Rick, and Antoine. (The fifth man stayed in his shelter). All of them were obviously suffering from varying degrees of ravaged health. I feel certain they were much younger than their weathered, hardened appearances suggested. Signs of addiction were evident in their countenances as well.

A couple were grateful for the food, socks, money, and coats that I had brought, but not Antoine. Rick had given me permission to take photos of their home, but Antoine grew very angry when he discovered I had taken them. I apologized and offered to delete them from my phone, but he said he didn’t “give a f**k what I did.”

Nevertheless, I was grateful for the opportunity to help him and extended my love and prayers. He looked to be the most haggard and the most “hard scrabble” of the bunch. I suspect he had suffered a great deal in his life.

Tom needed gloves, so since I didn’t have any, he put some of the socks I had brought on his hands. (For those of you who don’t know, socks are one of the most essential items for homeless people in the winter, as one’s feet and socks get damp from sweating. Unchanged socks in severe cold can easily lead to frostbite and potential gangrene and amputation).

As I ambled back to my car parked on the wide part of the shoulder about a block away, I looked back at them wistfully and said, “God bless,” one last time. It was painful to think about them suffering and about their limited prospects for long term relief.

From the West Bottoms, I headed over to the east side of downtown Kansas City, near a couple of homeless shelters. At least one of them opens its doors at 6 p.m. and offers no programs other than a church service, and kicks its clients out at 6 a.m., leaving them to spend the day wandering the streets. After a quick lunch of bread, hummus, and water in the parking lot, I was back on the streets on a mission to find some more people to help.

I met Ron, who was celebrating a birthday by roaming the street near the City Union Mission with back pain and the longest fingernails I had ever seen, save the man in the Guinness Book of World Records. Not very talkative, he recited a quote to me about his fear of becoming good at the wrong thing. I gave him a hug, told him I would pray for him, and gave him some food and money.

I met Rudy, who was a 70-year-old Southern California transplant. His goal was to get back to CA to see his family again. He was steadfast in his faith and the power of God’s Word. He quoted several scriptures to me and cracked a few jokes. He was on his way to the library, but we spoke for a bit. He took some socks and some food and went on his way, beseeching me to pray for him. Of course I said I would.

I met a married couple who had been evicted from their apartment and had nowhere to go. They were fighting when I approached them, but calmed down when I asked them who they were and what their situation was. I talked to them for a bit, offering encouragement and giving them some socks and food. Sometimes people just need to know someone gives a sh*t about them and treats them like they are people too.

All in all, I interacted with about 15 homeless individuals that day. God willing, I was at least a flicker of light in the dark places in which they reside.

As someone with Bipolar Disorder and addictions, I am in recovery and living a functional life “by the grace of God.” Any one of the people I met could have been me.

About the Author 

Jason Miller, a Kansas resident, has been in some form of recovery since 1993. He is a contributor of the blog Bipolar is Beautiful.

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