My first glimpse of “Sandy” was the sight of her eagerly peeking through the curtains, watching for me to arrive at her house. She was 14, and we’d been paired up by Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
Now, she’s all grown up and suffering from mental illness and a litany of other problems. For the past two years, she’s also been homeless.
During our 30-year friendship, Sandy (not her real name) has longed for a life she’ll likely never get. She wants to live like the people she sees on TV. She wants an apartment and a job. She wants to go to the California State Fair. But there are big obstacles.
Sandy gets $911 in Social Security disability benefits a month. She’s in a mental health services program assigned to her by the county. But the program does not offer housing. It’s a classic Catch-22. So many times now, I have explained to overwhelmed social workers that she needs a roof and counseling to keep her there.
She was told to look on Craigslist and find a room in order to get financial rental assistance. But her cell phone has a cracked screen and she has no way to power it up in the tent she is living in off Mather Field Road.
What she needs is “permanent supportive housing,” a place to live with a social worker who will help her manage to stay there. To get that, I am told, she needs a “mental health services certificate” from El Hogar Guest House. All this is confusing to me, let alone her.
So, one morning, I pick her up at the light rail station. Smelling of hand rolled cigarettes and the streets, she loads her shopping cart of belongings into my SUV. A bottle of vegetable oil and unpackaged bar of Dove soap falls out of a broken grocery bag.
We walk in at El Hogar Guest House, a pleasant intake facility for the homeless near Richards Boulevard. Sandy is welcomed to orientation while I sit in the waiting room. I’m not allowed to go in with her. The staff are kind to people, safely locking up their backpacks and handing out nutrition bars and coffee. There are couches and chairs. It is clean.
A young man enters and asks for help getting his medications. A calm woman assures him someone will be able to talk with him soon. He becomes more agitated, talking to himself, pacing, moving the chairs and tables into other configurations. I watch other staff members cautiously move near in case he becomes violent. He leaves, then comes back.
Just then, Sandy emerges from orientation with a sheet of paper: an appointment, two months from now, for a psychiatric evaluation. The county already has a lengthy record of her mental illness, suicide attempts, hospitalizations and criminal convictions (because the jail is where mentally ill homeless people often end up).
When we, as a community, talk about homeless people, it’s easy to get disgusted with people defecating in parking garages, leaving syringes in gutters, panhandling in an aggressive manner and damaging property.
I remember this homeless woman as a teenager I’d take bowling, who helped me paint my living room, who enjoyed matinees and Chinese food. We went to the state fair every summer and Great America when she got her General Educational Development certificate. I even got her to wear a dress for my wedding.
Now, her pink flowered backpack is filthy. She has developed a slight tic in her one eye. Her face is unwashed and weathered like a piece of cardboard in the gutter. “I just want to be independent,” she tells me. “I want to live on my own.”
Let’s also remember that many are mentally ill and need help to stay out of our jails and emergency rooms. At my age, I have my own health issues. I explain to Sandy that I can’t always help out as I did before. She then reassures me I’m going to be fine and live a long time.
Some good news: The Volunteers of America recently got Sandy a room in a house and a “navigator” who meets with her regularly.
I hope it’s enough to keep her off the streets for good.