25 October 2009

TWO OLD LADIES

When you ask around the neighborhood, or talk to staff or homeless people at the Drop, most will tell you that Nan came from Korea. There are other more obscure stories about her originating in Cambodia, Japan and a few other places. Nan has lived at the Drop Inn shelter for over a decade. She believes that she owns the Drop Inn Center, or at least has lots of equity built up. She speaks little or no English, and there is rarely anybody around who speaks Korean, or whatever Nan's native language might be. While she is not a dwarf, Nan can't be more than 4'11". Often you can see her in Washington Park searching one of the smaller trees for a branch that is just right for back scratching. She will slide that branch down the back of her blouse and scratch herself slowly, thoughtfully, and with great satisfaction. On days when no branches are within her reach, she will flag down a passerby to help her. She will communicate with hand gestures, alternately scowling or smiling, until the poor bemused volunteer figures out that she actually wants him to break off a branch from a tree that is ostensibly city property. Nan believes there is some sort of trust fund back in Korea, or possibly a rich relative, who has been making payments on the Drop Inn Center. She is convinced that she actually has equity in the place. How she rationalizes the presence of hundreds of homeless people passing through each week is not clear. LA Mary also resides at the Drop, usually. She will spend the occasional night on the street. Her cinder grey hair is long and unkempt. Her hygiene is erratic. Her voice sounds like an Evinrude outboard, or Anne Ramsey in Throw Mama From The Train. Hardly anybody knows her real name. Mary is not from Los Angeles; LA stands for "LoudAss." Mary is a paranoid schizophrenic who, for reasons she usually does not wish to share, refuses to take medication. Her strategy with her auditory hallucinations, aka the voices in her head, is to shout them down. You can tell when LA Mary is hearing voices: you will see her plodding down the street cussing a blue streak at the top of her cigarette-ravaged lungs. (She prefers unfiltered Camels, but they are getting pricey. She settles for whatever she can afford or scrounge.) These ladies are what you might call resource resistant. Over many years doctors, psych RN's, LSW's, and sometimes total strangers with no social work experience have tried to place these women in better shelters, rooms or apartments. Inevitably such placement is contingent upon an agreement to take medication. Inevitably, Nan and LA Mary fail to qualify for housing. Perhaps "qualify" should be in quotes. If delusional thinking and auditory hallucinations are not qualifying factors for subsidized housing, then what is? But most people would have NIMBY issues with living next door to a woman who tears their trees apart and believes that she owns their building. Or a woman who turns any environment she occupies into an enormous ashtray, and disturbs her neighbors dinner hour by yelling at her voices: "A--hole! Shut the f--- up! I'll kick your f------ teeth in you piece of ----." After many years, these two old ladies prowl OTR and downtown, looking for peace they will never find as long as they live at the Drop and on the street. They have a right to decline to be treated. But can their decision possibly be based on informed consent? What should we do with them that we are not doing now, which is almost nothing. And how do you help them without coercion that would violate their rights?

1 comment:

CityKin said...

I have known Nan for a long time, and I think I know who Mary is by your description.

Nan is was definitely born in Korea and speaks the language with other Koreans who occasionally meet her. It is a mystery how she ended up here.

Seems like a decent bed, maybe a private room at a place like the DIC is the most pragmatic solution for women like this. Unsupervised housing would definitely not work.

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