Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Last Two Dollars

I was having trouble understanding the man, but I believe his last words as the police walked up were, “I’m down to my last two dollars.”

One of my favorite workouts is a five mile or so walk in the City of Columbia at a 17 minute per mile pace. It is a good time for thinking as well as exercising. I do it once a week or so, and yesterday was the day. On such a journey, one sees and experiences the city much differently than driving.

I do not stick to busy and crowded Main and Gervais but take the side streets through neighborhoods and by smaller businesses. Lots of lawyer offices, medical offices, non-profits, historical homes, etc. Today I walked south on Pickens, crossed Taylor, and saw something unusual at the bus stop on the southwest corner.

There were two men there, a forty something Black man sitting on the bench, and an elderly Black man, legless, lying flat on the concrete sidewalk on his back beside a wheelchair. I wasn’t easily distracted from my walking and whatever was going through my mind at the time so I just kept moving on.

I assumed the two were together, the younger looking after the older, but I wondered if I should have said something or perhaps asked if he needed help getting the man back in his wheelchair. I thought of the Good Samaritan and began to feel a little guilty for just passing on by. So, a hundred yards or so further along, I stopped and turned to look just as the younger man got up and walked off. Maybe he was going to call for help.

So, at that point, I had to walk back and do a little investigating. I asked the man if he was taking a nap. He said he was trying to. I asked if he was OK. He said yes. I asked if he needed help getting in his chair. He said no. So, I left again. But I still felt there was unfinished business so I went around the block and passed the man again.

On this third pass, I bent down and tried to talk to him, though he was difficult to understand. I asked if he needed me to call an ambulance. He said no, that he was OK. I asked where he lives, expecting that perhaps he is a resident of the Marion St. Tower, nearby home to many poor and disabled. He said, “Right here.”

Then a police car with two officers pulled up. Just as the man mentioned the “two dollars,” one of the officers asked the man if he was OK. He said he was. Then an ambulance arrived. The officer thanked me and said, “We’ve got it.” I felt dismissed. Maybe the officer was thinking I had called in the situation. It looked like the ambulance drivers were about to get a stretcher out, but I didn’t stick around to see what happened. 

So, what is wrong with that situation. It’s not lack of “health care” since the man is obviously on Medicare, probably because of age and certainly because of disability. There is a good chance he suffers from some mental illness because almost certainly he has had opportunities through the SC Department of Social Services for some housing and has rejected those opportunities. Surely he has!

I hope the ambulance drivers took the man to the closest emergency room and that the police called the Department of Social Services to send someone to meet him there and arrange appropriate nursing care and housing for him. If the man insists on being on the street during the day to panhandle and enjoy some social interaction and independence, let him do so. But the City of Columbia should not allow him to spend helpless nights on the street. It is dangerous, unhealthy, unsafe, and unacceptable.

Mental health reforms, apparently inspired by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, might have had some good results but also had a lot of unintended and unfortunate consequences. I frankly don’t have any sympathy for people wanting the government to provide their flu shots and birth control pills and pay for their annual physicals, but our system for caring for the helpless needs a lot of improvement. That is a priority.

I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the man. He won’t be difficult to spot. Next time I see him, hopefully in his chair, I will find out his name, how old he is, how he lost his legs, how much income he has, and the name of his social worker. I’ll give him a few dollars. Then I will call that social worker who will tell me that she can’t discuss the case because of privacy concerns. Then I’ll find Mr. ______ and give him a few more dollars and tell him that he must give his social worker permission to talk to me if he wants any more help from me.

And maybe once he has a safe place to sleep and bathe and get clean clothes and eat three meals a day, his SSI or SS income will be enough that he won’t always be down to his last two dollars.