Drug addiction, homelessness and the failure of self-control shows on Eugene's streets

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Every Monday I drive to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, pick up prepared sandwiches and deliver them to the HIV Alliance offices. Most of the people receiving the sandwiches there or at needle exchange events are hungry. For some, it may be their only meal of the day.

When I got to the church, I saw a woman camping on the walk across the alley from the church’s back door. As I passed on the church side of the alley, I said, “Hello.” No response. I went up to the kitchen, collected a box of PBJs and some meat and cheese sandwiches. I carried them to the car, and as I walked by, I asked the woman, “Would you like a couple sandwiches?”

This time the answer was swift and definite: “Keep the f--- away from me,” she shouted. That was followed by other mutterings and shouted expletives. Maybe psychotic, maybe Tourette's syndrome. I am used to behavior like this from some folks on the street. It’s not really them. It’s their mental disabilities talking. I said, “Hey, it’s OK. I’m leaving.” No further response.

I put the sandwiches in the car and drove away. At Willamette Street, I stopped, although the light was green. Another street person was crossing the street, dancing, gesticulating wildly and talking loudly to someone or something. I could not understand what he was saying, but I recognized the behavior.

A woman in tattered clothing waited to my right for the crosswalk signal to change. She was wearily watching the man who by that time was standing on the opposite corner, continuing his episode. She crossed the street about halfway, then angled off the crosswalk, reaching the sidewalk about two or three car lengths from the corner and hurried on her way. She didn’t look well-off, and may or may not have been homeless.

I headed to the HIV Alliance office. After delivering the sandwiches, a familiar looking fellow approached me in the parking lot. I know many local street-people by sight, but I was having trouble remembering his name. He looked at me and spoke very quietly, “Jack.” He said how it was good to see me, how he missed the old Saturday Breakfast at the church (a real social event that brought hundreds of hungry people together to eat and socialize, until COVID-19 stopped that kind of gathering). We chatted for a bit. He asked about my wife. He asked about how I was doing. In his way, he cares about me and my family.

Jack suffers drug addiction, for which he has done time. I asked him where he was staying. “Nowhere,” he answered. “I’ve been kicked out of most of the programs.” He told me he had been in recent contact with the deacon at our church who helps ex-offenders and people in recovery. Jack is intelligent. He’s kind when he’s himself and not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He lives on the street because he has no other place to be. His slight weight was one of the reasons I didn’t recognize him more quickly. He is now rail-thin, having lost maybe 20-25 pounds from a not very big body.

We expect Jack, the lady in the alley and the guy in his wild gesticulating episode to get themselves together. We offer few services, long waiting lists and often provide basic services contingent on self-control. Is this our solution to the problems of homelessness, post-incarceration, drug addiction and mental health problems?

We dismantled an inadequate mental health system in the 1970s and replaced it with scant services, waiting lists and a misplaced hope in volunteerism and charity. We are the only industrial nation in the world that expects to solve these problems this way. It doesn’t work. It never worked. We need to get over the idea that individuals alone are responsible for their condition in life. The community is responsible. Big (federal) community, state policy, tax investments in one another – nothing short of a real national commitment to caring will help ameliorate the disease that is in our society. The delusion of selfish individualism is that disease.

Richard Zeller is a disability policy analyst and a retired University of Oregon research faculty. He lives in Eugene.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Drug addiction, homelessness and the failure of self-control