Although I have always loved words, there are no words that adequately explain the feelings and the fear that go with being the mom of a homeless man.
In the August issue of The Active Age, I read a well-organized, comprehensive overview of the issues of homelessness and mental illness in Wichita (“Mental Illness driving homeless ‘disaster’ in Wichita”). I learned more from that article about services that are (and will be) available than I have from 20 years of being involved in ‘the system’ with my son, my work in COMCARE’s homeless program and being associated with many people who spend their days trying to figure out where they will sleep that night.
In the world of living and associating with others on the streets, in crappy, overpriced motels, in shelters, in hospital emergency departments or psychiatric units or in jail, nothing seems to hold still — not the people, not their belongings, not their emotions. If anything has monetary value at all, it can be lost, stolen, traded or sold. Social Security cards, I.D.s, Vision cards, cell phones are here today, gone tomorrow. Clothes have myriad and mysterious ways of disappearing. And other belongings? There aren’t many, and only for the fortunate few who have figured out how to stay in one place for more than a night, or a week. Or for those who push grocery baskets or carry multiple bags and blankets on their backs.
Drugs and alcohol? Yes, they are part of the problem. But as often as they provide a gateway to stupor and stupid choices, they also offer relief from pain and loneliness.
How can an addict or person with severe and persistent mental illness explain himself or herself? And who would listen? Who would care?
I — an oftentimes scared, helpless mom — am a testament to the fact that even caring only goes so far. I have sat on the edge of life every day and night for years waiting for (and expecting) the phone call that would tell me my son is no longer alive. I have learned hard, almost impossible lessons about boundaries and about my own limitations. Navigating the world of mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness with my son has challenged nearly every certainty I ever had, including those about myself. There have been times when it has felt like we would never make it through the darkness with our bond and hearts intact.
As of July, my son is no longer homeless. He is living in a studio apartment that Humankind (formerly Inter-faith Ministries) helped arrange for him. The problems, the issues, the heartbreak didn’t suddenly end when he was given the key to his apartment. But the miracle is real. Hope has gotten a much-needed companion of tangible relief.
Wichita has been my home for all but four or five years of my life. I love our city. I am proud to be a Wichitan and happy to live in the heartland of America. With faith and, in my case, a lot of prayer, we can arrive at the heart of the matter. All of us, working together. Without a change of many hearts, whatever we do to help will fall short of achieving permanent change. The ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ perspective of many is a false dichotomy. Surely one of the lessons many learned during the pandemic is that lives and fortunes can change in the beat of a heart, or the space of a day.
“There but for the grace of God go I” is an old saying, the meaning of which is timeless. Let’s do our best to take care of each other.
Barbara Drewry is a licensed social worker and single mom with six adult children, 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.