Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Story Of Frank Paul

The other night I watched a movie that has just been released on DVD called "The Soloist", starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. The movie is based on the true story of Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) who is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He discovers a Juilliard trained musical prodigy, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) living on the streets in downtown Los Angeles. Ayers had developed paranoid schizophrenia while at Juilliard, and he ended up alone and homeless. Both Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx's performances were wonderful, even though the movie seemed to lack direction.

The most gut-wrenching scenes in the movie were the scenes of the hundreds of homeless people, with nowhere to go, no hope, and no one who seemed to really care. Most of them suffered from some sort of debilitating mental illness. I have never liked the term "mental illness" because it seems to imply a psychological connection rather than a physical connection. I believe most so-called mental illnesses are really a form of physical brain disease, and should be treated as such. There should be no stigma attached to having a "brain disease", any more than there is to having heart disease. But here we are in the 21st Century, still stigmatizing these poor folks. In the 1980s, the policies in many countries were to close the hospitals where people could receive the treatment they needed, and most of these folks who were powerless to help themselves were forgotten. The idea was to help people get better, learn new coping and life skills, and gain some independence. Unfortunately, we now see them now sleeping under piles of rags, in doorways and on park benches. Most of us walk past them, trying not to look at them, or to make eye contact.

A few years ago there was a Mi'kmaq Aboriginal man by the name of Frank Paul who used to panhandle outside the liquor store next to my local supermarket. Something about him touched my psyche -- or my heart -- if you will. He looked people in the eyes, and there was a whole world of communication in his expression. He appeared sad and ashamed of how low he had fallen, he had a certain dignity that I have rarely seen, and he seemed to be saying, "Don't look at me as I appear to be; I am really more like you than you realize. What has happened to me can happen to anyone, and I am embarrassed that it has happened to me." He also had a thoughtful look of gratitude when anyone gave him money, and I had the feeling that if the tables were turned, he would be more than generous in return. One day, Mr. Paul was arrested for being drunk in a public place. A sergeant at the city drunk tank refused to allow him to stay, and Mr. Paul was dragged to a police wagon and then dumped in the back alley, where he died of hypothermia.

Later on, Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu issued a news release apologizing to Mr. Paul's family and the community. "We deeply regret the loss of life caused by the mistakes our officers made, who had a duty of care for Mr. Paul," said Chu. "Since that tragic event, we have strengthened and modified certain policies, our procedures and training have been reinforced, and we continue to work closely with our public health partners to further safeguard the lives and well being of those in our care."

While I was watching "The Soloist" the other night, I kept thinking of Mr. Paul. What talents did he possess? Could he have been a wonderful writer, artist, musician? Maybe with the right opportunities, he would have been a great diplomat, or a doctor, or a teacher. Would he have ever had the opportunity to find out? Well, certainly not on the streets of Vancouver, that's for sure.

Homelessness should not exist; it is unacceptable. And none of us really knows if it could happen to us, or someone we love. There but for the grace of God goes any one of us.


Jennifer D said...

What a beautiful post Jo. I have seen the "soloist" and I too was sadded by the story, although I didn't really "like" the movie. I knew a man like Frank Paul once...Ben, he would come in the bank I worked at, once a month on the 1st when his check came in. Somedays he was doing good and some bad, he also died a lonely death.Tonight I will pray for all the Frank Pauls of the world.It is so unfair.

Jo said...

Jennifer, what, my goodness what a lovely comment. It is so unfair what happens to all the Frank Pauls of the world, isn't it?

ZB said...

I second your thoughts on mental health....we all come across people like Frank Paul in our life, especially in India. How sad.

the walking man said...

You are correct the wholesale closing of the institutions was home for these people in distress was a mistake that has had far reaching consequences in every city and town in North America.

I don't know about anywhere else but in Michigan it was done nearly twenty years ago as a way to make the budget go from red to black. Then when the hospitals were closed the then Governor cut off their monthly stipend of $125.

It is just another brick in the road to the hardhearted society we are increasingly becoming.

TC said...

I watched the solist this weekend, rented the movie and watched it twice.
Beautiful post, we all need to be reminded of these things and "but for the grace of God there goes I", or however it goes. You are spot on with the mental illness being a physical illness and how we've increased the ranks of the homeless by closing the mental hospitals.
I especially appreciated the part in the movie where it says the homeless may just need to be acknowledged such as how are you etc.

PhilipH said...

A moving post Jo. Homelessness is so terrible, especially in rich western countries.

There once was a chap in Croydon who was homeless and dressed himself completely in old newspapers! He was known as "Paper Jack".

Paper Jack was one of Croydon’s best-loved characters and was famous for being a kindly, well-spoken eccentric - clothed only in a suit made of newspapers, who befriended hundreds of children in Wallington and Croydon.
He was a familiar sight in the area until he was killed by a car in a poorly-lit Benson Road in Croydon, on January 30, 1935. He was aged 59.
His real name was Alfred Preece, born in Bristol in1876.
Paper Jack's father Alfred was an auctioneer; he married Elizabeth Ellis and they had a son in 1876 christened Alfred Ellis Preece, later to become ‘Paper Jack’. The family grew to seven children, living in a large house with a housekeeper and gardener; quite well off.
In 1901, the family moved back to Croydon where Alfred - Paper Jack - was a surveyor, aged 26 and still single and his father was still in the property business.
What caused his descent into abject poverty may never be known and I wonder what his affluent parents and siblings thought of it all? We would now probably term it a mid-life crisis'.
Following his death, there was an inquest and his funeral took place at Streatham Park Cemetery, amid much family secrecy. There were only two family members at the ceremony. A sad end to an intriguing life.

Russell said...

A lot of nice comments already. I certainly cannot add anything more that what has been said so nicely before me.

As the holiday season approaches, a lot of attention will be given to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, and so on.

I think it is good such attention be given at this time of year - but it is very sad that the critical need in our society is largely ignored from January through October by most people.

But it is still nice that so many people do get involved in November and December to help out.

Anonymous said...

My heart goes out to the Frank Pauls of the world, but there are also many homeless who choose to be so.
I worked in a strip mall in my teens and there was a 'family' (it was three guys who were friends) who lived by our dumpsters. They were always very nice and I asked one, 'Pony' what happened that he became homeless. His response, "I didn't want to work no more." Now, I don't know if that is wholly true, maybe there are circumstamces that he was too embarrassed to speak of, but he always claimed he was homeless b/c he chose to be.
There are always two sides to a story, and for those who truly seek help, I will always give.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Your lovely, gentle yet fierce post touches me deeply. It IS unacceptable that in some of the world's richest countries, anyone is homeless and denied medical care. This will only change when enough of the "haves" care enough about the "have-nots" to insist on it.

I was thinking just this morning about how Alzheimer's is a physical disease, not a psychological one, just like schizophrenia and all the other horrible maladies that can afflict the brain. You are so right that there should be no more stigma to these illnesses than to heart disease or any other. The reason most of us know so little about the homeless living among us is our own fear because truly, there but for the grace of God..

Nancy said...

Very well said. But for the grace of God, go I.

I believe it was in the Reagan era that they opened the doors to all of the mental institutions, without backup for the people who needed some place to live. It was a terrible travesity, if you ask me.

Jo said...

ZB, yes, I would imagine there a lots of folks like Frank Paul there, with the disparity in wealth.

Mark, I know, the same thing happened in Canada. How do we undo it!?

TC, yes, the movie really affected me. I would never have dreamed there would be such homelessness!

Philip, omigod, what a sad story about "Paper Jack". How can human beings allow things like that to happen to each other!?

Russell, yes, it is something that should be addressed all year, not just at the holiday seasons. In Vancouver, the homeless people are being "shooed" away because of the upcoming Olympics.

Cat, yes, but I wonder how many of those people choose to be homeless because they can't make their own decisions. It's a really tough call, isn't it?

Hearts, of course Alzheimers is a physical disease. You know, all of these diseases would be helped so much more if people approached them as physical rather than "mental". I think in some ways we are still in the Dark Ages.

Nancy, yes, part of Reagan's economic policy, and the rest of the world followed suit.

Land of shimp said...

Our bodies are such complex machines. There shouldn't be any stigma with mental illness, or shame. I've never met anyone who blames my son for having Type 1 diabetes ( although, in fairness, woe betide them if they were foolish enough to say anything like that to me) ...and that has to do with his pancreas failing to manufacture insulin. There's no blame attached, no shame.

But when a person's brain manufactures the wrong chemical balance, or ceases to perform with normal ranges, the person suffering is somehow blamed. It's a form of societal illness, in and of itself, that we cannot shake this nearly medieval mindset. Mental illness is about imbalance of brain functions. If you wouldn't look down on someone with gallbladder trouble? Then don't do it to people with a form of mental illness because they are suffering from abnormal levels in a different body part, that's all.

I do have to add something -- one of my husband's sisters suffers from a host of mental illnesses, some not fully diagnosed. She has delusions. She sees things that come and go like piles of bloody towels, and people who are not there urging her to do things.

She spent most of the summer homeless before her family was finally able to get her to move out of the Walmart parking lot where she was living....but we can do nothing to force treatment upon her unless she is considered a danger to herself and others.

We were once successful in having her committed for anorexia when her weight dwindled to life threatening levels. The treatment she received was so rudimentary, and often distressing simply to hear about it (forced restraint, feeding tubes put up her nose while she was conscious and struggling). To this day she has a deep loathing of doctors. She won't go near any.

Our society's understanding of mental illness is shockingly backward, but the treatment of it is often very brutal. A person with severely impaired judgment unfortunately often retains the memories of how they were treated, afterward. Our attempt to cure my husband's sister, to get her some help, almost certainly guaranteed the she will now never willingly accept it.

Not only is our understanding, and empathy towards mental illness as a society still rather backwards, the treatment of these illnesses is often still too close to barbaric. Since my SIL had been legally committed for ninety days, even her family was unable to intervene.

We need to improve our understanding, empathy, and treatment, still.

TomCat said...

Very well said, Josie. People afflicted with psychoactive diseases do not belong under bridges, sleeping in the streets, or warehoused in prisons. They belong in the best circumstances possible with given the treatment they require.

Meggie said...

I agree with you. I have seen the Soloist, and enjoyed the story in a very sad way.
You are so right when you say it could be any one of us.

Jo said...

Alane, "we can do nothing to force treatment upon her unless she is considered a danger to herself and others. " That is the saddest thing of all. And the Catch-22 is, these folks are unable to make that judgment for themselves. So they continue to spiral downwards. And, as you say, it is the same physically as your son's diabetes. I think we have gone backwards, and not forwards. Your sister-in-law obviously needs help, but no one seems to know how to help her, and she cannot help herself. That is such a sad commentary on us as a society, isn't it!? I feel so bad for her, and for you -- her family.

TomCat, I couldn't have said it better myself. Where has human kindness gone!?

Meggie, oh, yes, there but for the grace of God...

Kathryn said...

"There but for the grace of God . . . "

I carried a mental illness Dx for many years. It is still in the records. Early on i was sure it was physical, but the docs kept telling me i was "just depressed." Eventually, i was.

I never ended up on the streets, but it was very close a number of times.

By the grace of God i came out of this when i began cleaning up my environment & eating real food instead of fast food & other non-nutrient things. But the physical illness i always believed it to be remained. I have fairly severe Chronic Fatigue among other things (which docs still tend to dismiss as "depression" even tho i'm not depressed).

I also worked psych for many years. It is heartbreaking to tell family members who are concerned that the law defines "danger to self or others" very narrowly & that we (the hospitals for which i worked) had our hands tied in helping unless the person wanted help. And often, even when the person wanted help the insurances also had a narrow view of who would be covered & many were not granted criteria to be admitted.

Many sad things in the world today. But i do have a soft spot in my heart for the folks i meet on the street & often are begging. That person was so very nearly me.

Alicia said...

Love this post Jo. I too always say, there but for the Grace of God go I and try to help if I can.

Paula Slade said...

Very thoughtful post Jo. I've not seen "The Soloist" but am familiar with the story. Both Ayers and Paul's plights, as well as those of thousands more nameless souls who are cast aside because of mental illness is not only wrong but unacceptable in this day and age. I heard an interesting interview a couple of weeks ago by a psychiatrist, Julie Holland, who has written a book about the nine years she spent treating mostly homeless people who, in New York, often wind up at Bellevue Hospital. She puts it better than I by saying, " There is a diaphanous membrane between sane and insane. It is the flimsiest of barriers, and because any one of us can break through at any time, it terrifies us, causing us to turn our backs on those who remind us of this painful reality. But spending so much time with people who marched out of the lockstep of sanity has made me less forgiving of the way the mentally ill are ostracized and shunned. We owe them something better. And we should remember that the barrier separating "them" from "us" is not nearly as secure as we might think.