The Face of Consequences

June 14, 2011

I don’t want my friend Thomas to become a cause—a poster child for what happens when someone falls between society’s cracks. But I fear this result if Social Security denies his disability application for the third time. Another denial will sentence him to a long continuation of his state of homelessness that I don’t think he can endure. The light of hope would be too faint, too far in the distance for him to continue to bear the coarse life in the men’s shelter—a life too rough for a man with the temperament of a gifted artist like Thomas.

Without hope, it is easy to imagine him erupting into a violent outburst that would land him in prison. Thomas himself frequently speaks of his own fear of such an outcome. Without hope, a relapse into drug use from which he would not recover is a real possibility. Without hope, he could choose to end his own suffering. The last time I dropped Thomas off at the homeless shelter I sensed that the thread of hope on which his life dangles has grown dangerously thin.

Over his lifetime, Thomas’s mental illness has caused him to ricochet from one precarious situation to another. In his fifties now, he has been homeless off and on for the last 10 years. Last spring, to escape the violence and regimentation of the shelter, he set up a tent camp by the railroad tracks. This attempt to take his life into his own hands nearly ended in disaster when an unwelcome visitor pulled a knife on him in his own camp.

A well-intentioned group of friends tried to help by providing temporary shelter and short-term employment until Thomas could “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” The friends underestimated the amount of effort it takes for a penniless person without transportation to get himself to sources of free meals. His well-meaning employer encountered the personality problems that no doubt have interfered throughout Thomas’s life with his ability to maintain steady employment.

Although Thomas has received mental health treatment in the past, the suggestion that his mental illness might be a disability that would prevent his future employment was a surprisingly uncomfortable confrontation for him. As I consider his reaction now, I see that if you are desperate and have only your self to rely on, facing a diagnosis of impairment due to mental illness would be devastating.

This is a warning to all those who want to dismantle government, and to all who stand idly by while this travesty of the American dream is foisted on a naïve and unsuspecting public. As long as you are of sound mind and body, America offers you great hope for a secure and prosperous life. But if you should suffer a misfortune that impairs your mental or physical health beyond what your own resources can provide for, you will find, as Thomas and I have, that the much-vaunted private sector offers you no safety net at all. With no resources and no safety net, you will find yourself in a hole with very steep walls. As a beggar, you will lose your dignity, your self-respect, and eventually your hope. You will become a permanent dependent or you will die a premature death from illness, violence, or simply despair.

If you measure life in monetary terms, you will be impressed that Thomas’s artworks sell for thousands of dollars. But is that really what life is all about—how much money you can make, how much stuff you can acquire? Ironically, a keen focus on money makes the most sense for those who don’t have any at all. But often it is people who have more than they need that maintain the most anxious grasp on their cash. What causes financially secure people to act like that? Could it be mere selfishness and greed, all wrapped up in a red-white-and blue political ideology?

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