Hard problems

 The ancient Hebrew prophets spend most of their time on but two issues: idolatry and the treatment of the poor. In the New Testament, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount records that Jesus says that the “poor” are “blessed” or “happy.”  Jesus describes the poor more broadly than we have a tendency to do in our modern world.  Rather than limiting them to those suffering from financial deprivation, the poor include the persecuted, the humble, those seeking righteousness, and even the sad.  Jesus later tells us that the entire Bible is summed up in one command: to love God and to love people.

A columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Steve Lopez, published a book entitled, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.   It later became a movie, with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.

Lopez happened upon a homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers on a Los Angeles street.  He stopped and chatted with him after hearing him playing Beethoven on a broken violin.  After doing a bit of research, Lopez discovered that the homeless man’s claim to having been a former prodigy and student at Julliard School in New York was actually true.  Lopez turned this chance meeting into a newspaper column. The response was immediate, with several people offering Ayers cellos and violins, among other things.  Lopez became the conduit for these gifts, and inadvertently found himself involved in the homeless man’s life.  Ayers had dropped out of Juliard after drifting into mental illness (schizophrenia) at age 21.  Now in his fifties, he had spent most of his life on the streets. 

Lopez found that solving the man’s problem and improving his condition was far from easy.  Simply putting him in a clean apartment and giving him money couldn’t undo his mental illness nor put him back on track to becoming a musician. He had lifelong habits cultured over years on the streets that were not amenable to any quick fixes.

Lopez’s experience with Ayers illustrates the problem of solving an issue like homelessness.  Any solution is inevitably labor intensive: Lopez spent enormous amounts of time with a person who suffered extreme mood swings, whose mental illness was acute and severe.  The experts that Lopez contacted were divided on how best to treat Ayers and no matter what course was chosen, years of therapy and a lifetime of medication were inevitable.  Would Ayers even go along with it?  And if he did not chose to participate, or did not keep up on his medication, then what?

Lopez’s experience with Ayers illustrates the problems that friends and family of the mentally ill face every day, every week, for months and years at a time.  For most of the homeless, they have burned through all the friends and family they had—people who loved them but simply got worn down after years of struggle without improvement or change.  They did not know how to cope with a person suffering with severe mental illness.  How many of us do?  My youngest daughter suffers from bipolar disorder; at 18 she cannot drive a car, she is unable to attend school in a regular classroom (and instead takes courses online).  Thankfully she is cooperative, takes her medication, and lets us help her.  If she were resistant, given that she is  now legally an adult, our hands would be tied.

Obviously, the solution to the problems Ayers and the other homeless people suffering from serious mental illnesses, is hard.  Any improvement in the lives of the homeless is going to take a lot of work by a lot of very dedicated people over a long period of time.  They may go years without seeing any progress.  How many people are able to keep working through problems that, despite great effort, remain unfixed?

Donating money to those who choose to devote themselves to working with people like them is one approach. Choosing to become a mental health worker who works with the homeless would be another way to help.  Volunteering, getting churches and other non-profit organizations to become involved and to dedicate the manpower and time to the effort, along with their limited financial resources, would be another. 

The long-term goal of such efforts is to help such people become as productive and as self-sufficient as possible.  Short term goals may be as simple as ensuring that they have food and a safe place to sleep for a night.  It must be understood that the effort will be difficult and the results will inevitably be mixed; not everyone is going to be able to be fixed, since, in a very real way, those you would be trying to help must be willing to accept the help and be willing to put in the effort needed to become well again.

As with most social sorts of problems, if the solution was easy, there wouldn’t be a problem to begin with.  Those who expect or demand immediate ends to these problems will be disappointed.  Those who imagine that electing “the right people” to political office will somehow alter the hard reality, are also doomed to disillusionment.  Even Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us.  Helping the poor is a job that will never be over: even as one Nathaniel Ayers is helped, a dozen more will spring up in his place.