When Mental Illness and Homelessness Collide
He couldn't talk. I never figured out exactly why, but something had happened to him - an illness, injury, or unspeakable trauma - that only allowed him to make sounds with his voice that would not coalesce into actual words.
But oh, could he communicate.
I first spotted him shortly after I moved to Chicago. Having just settled into my cute apartment nestled between Lake Michigan and Wrigley Field, I decided to take a walk around my neighborhood. Relishing the fact that everything I needed could be found within a mile radius, I felt that only sunshine could fall on these streets.
Not a block from my apartment, I noticed a fairly tall man asking for change outside of Walgreens. From a distance, he looked a bit disheveled but otherwise healthy. It wasn't until I got closer that I could see that the man had been through some tough times. Teeth were missing, and he had a slight tremor. He was mumbling to no one in particular, but when our eyes locked, he was able to focus. I smiled at him and said, "Hello!" Then I dropped some change into his dirty Styrofoam cup.
A wide grin spread across his face and he tried to say, "Thank you!" but all that he could manage was a two-syllable sound pregnant with vowels. But I knew what he was trying to say.
A few days later, I saw him again. To my delight, he recognized me and began to make noise. I dropped more coins in his cup as I noticed the torn winter coat he wore even in the summer.
Over time, my "Hello!" expanded to "Well hello, my friend!" One day, he showed his thanks by blowing me a kiss. I returned the gesture, and this became our signature way of greeting each other.
As summer and fall expired into winter, I recognized the toll the seasons took on the homeless. My friend shivered at his post, never complaining and always grateful. In the evenings, I'd hit the café across the street for a cup of tea and a muffin. The café owner watched with curiosity as I took these items across the street to my friend that so many walked by as if he did not exist.
Sometimes he talked to himself. Sometimes he slept. One day, he vomited on the street as I approached. He turned away, embarrassed, and would not look back at me for our greeting. I gave him his privacy.
He would disappear sometimes, and I would worry that something horrible had happened. But then I noticed a pattern - he would vanish for a few days each month and then return to his usual street corner. I surmised that he took advantage of the few nights in a shelter allotted to him each month.
Who was this man? He was a human being with a childhood, dreams, good times and tragedies, just like any of us. Yet mental illness and difficult circumstances rendered him homeless in a city (not unlike most cities) ill-equipped to handle this vulnerable population. Maybe he was a veteran. Maybe he was a father. If only he could make those sounds into words that could tell his story.
But even without words, he taught me great lessons about hardship, courage, and the ability to still find joy in the darkest of times. He reminded me that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and that mental illness is still surrounded by stigma that prevents people from reaching out to those who need help the most. He taught me that kindness can conquer fear and complacency, if only we open our hearts to this idea.
When I married and moved out of Chicago, I wondered if I would ever see my friend again. A few months ago, my question was answered. My husband and I had gone into the city for a Cubs game and decided to have dinner in my old neighborhood, for old time's sake. As we strolled past the familiar shops, hand in hand, we heard someone making noise across the street. We turned, and I caught my breath as I saw my old friend waving frantically and blowing me a kiss, smiling from ear to ear.
He remembered me. Just as I will never forget him.