Kinder and Gentler Pilots for Homeless and Elderly

Ideas and Issues
 Panhandlers dug up weeds along a side street in Albuquerque as part of a new program in the city. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times
Panhandlers dug up weeds along a side street in Albuquerque as part of a new program in the city. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times

New Orleans    I visit my 92-year old mother every day when I’m in New Orleans. She has 24-hour care, and we’re lucky and fortunate to be able to keep her at home. She eats well, but limited mobility means hours and hours in a big, comfortable arm chair. She reads with a magnifying glass while waiting for new glasses. The TV is on, and new hearing aids may make a difference. We’re looking for a lapdog. She cherishes every minute with the family and doesn’t complain or ask for anything more. Her general health is good, and we trust her caregivers, while we worry continually, but we often wonder about the quality of her life.

I read with interest one of those filler, throw-away articles in the living section of one of the local newspapers about a woman named Jessica Delk who runs something called Someplace Special for the Warren-Yazoo Mental Health Department in Mississippi over the last more than a dozen years. They see themselves as a socialization center. They handle less than 20 seniors at a time who are referred to them because of a mental health diagnosis like depression. They come in crying, sad, sleepless, and isolated. They eat, they exercise, they have discussions, and they take field trips. Sounds good doesn’t it? I think about whether my mother would enjoy something like this, but as good as this sounds, it’s temporary. It’s also a Band-Aid over a bleeding ocean. Twenty musical chairs for thousands there, tens of thousands in Mississippi, and millions in America. We don’t do daycare well for children, how can we imagine doing better for the elderly. Not because we don’t know how or because other countries don’t do much, much better, but because as a society we see these situations as personal problems, private burdens, and family matters.

We also coast along, because this is just the way things are.

We watch the homeless on the corners with a can, under the expressways, sleeping on steps and doorways, and that becomes part of the passing scene as well. The Times ran a story of a new program in Albuquerque that was interesting. A van drove through the campsites and public hideaways of the homeless offering one day of work in cleanup with lunch, transportation, and tools provided and $9 per hour pay for any takers. The story told of some who declined, but a bunch who accepted. The city hopes it makes a difference and moves someone on a better path. Maybe yes, maybe no, but to the degree it is an attitude adjustment in the way they look at the homeless, it’s a great step in the right direction: a hand up, rather than a slap down. Ironically, but movingly, the program is paid for out of a $5 million settlement the City paid to the family of a homeless man with mental health issues that was wrongly killed by the police.

These conditions are difficult but not intractable, but it takes fierce public and political will to steer a different course. But, honestly, if it can be done in the Delta of Mississippi and the wild, independent West of Albuquerque, what’s stopping us elsewhere?

Marina Kaye – Homeless