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.