This Man Is My Son

Dogtown RedemptionEarlier this month I wrote an article that appears in The Street Spirit, an East Bay newspaper dedicated to empowering the poor and homeless. Often I am asked “Why can’t your homeless son just move in with you?” There is no simple answer to this complicated issue. I am sharing the article in hopes that it enlightens my readers and encourages everyone to read the rest of the May issue here.

You wake in the middle of the night to the sound of somebody rustling through your garbage can. You get out of bed, peak through the window blinds, and see the disheveled white man, hands blackened, calloused, the size of boxing gloves.  You watch as he loads cans into one garbage bag, glass into another and balances the bags on the sides of his shopping cart.

He finds the pizza left over from the party you hosted a week ago and eats it with ravenous appetite. He reaches further down, retrieves your old baggy jeans and puts them on over his layers of clothes. As he walks away his gait falters and you may think he has the unbalanced shuffle of a drunk. You return to your bed and listen to the fading clamor of glass and metal as the cart rolls on to the next dumpster.

The man is my son. He’s 42 years old and has lived on the streets of West Oakland for four years. Legs painful and swollen tight under baggy jeans, he lumbers down the streets in the darkest hours of the night, towing that shopping cart with a car sized load of other people’s trash.

He turns the trash into money at Alliance Recycling Center, hoping to earn enough to survive another day. At dawn he returns to his home – a lean-to of plywood and tarps behind the freeway, away from the majority of the homeless. He is an outcast even here among his peers.

Our son was raised in a middle class home within a wealthy community. He struggled with the haughtiness of his peers, failed to meet the standards of one of the best school districts in the area, and looked for a way to escape. Not able to change his physical environment, he found a way to change his mental environment.

He discovered drugs – on the streets of Lafayette.  By the time he was 14 he was in a drug rehab program, followed by years of family therapy. Nothing worked. He dropped out of school, couldn’t hold a job and couldn’t stay out of trouble.

Trying to live with addiction, ripped the family apart. Tired of drug dealers knocking on the door, middle of the night rampages, and fearing for our safety we needed to let him move on. For years we found places for him to stay – mobile homes, apartments, a house in West Oakland, a van, a car. Each time he faced eviction for one reason or another.

Our resources have diminished to the point where our help is no longer possible. Our son refuses to stay in a shelter or go to another rehab facility. We can’t force him.

“There are too many rules and restrictions,” he says. “I don’t need that kind of help.” It’s denial of the disease that prevents recovery; his denial further complicated by a severe head injury sustained when he was hit by a semi-truck.

One day he tells us he is content to be living on the streets. The next day he begs to live with us. This is not an option. We cannot live with his hoarded trash, lapses of sobriety and an uneven temperament. He cannot live with our ideals, restrictions and rules. I keep my distance, physically and mentally, for my own wellbeing.

My relationship with our son is tenuous, careful and cautious, hinged on years of conflict. I am heartbroken when I see our son. This sad unkempt man is not the happy fastidious child we raised.  I have grieved the loss of that child for nearly three decades. His sky blue eyes are now sunken behind the gaunt mask of his hardened face, his breath reeks the odor of rotten teeth.

His immune system is compromised by Hepatitis C and heart valve damage from Endocarditis resulting in frequent hospital visits. These are the most difficult times. Each time he is hospitalized we visit and we wonder, will this be the last time?

When he is well enough by the standards of our government’s policies, he is forced to leave the hospital without a follow-up plan. With nowhere to go but the streets, he struggles until the next time – sometimes days later, sometimes months later. We wait for the next phone call.

I watch as my husband’s health declines. He chooses to stay connected with daily trips to Oakland, ensuring our son gets his methadone dose and a hot breakfast, bringing him home to bathe when his body oozes with infection.  Too many missed daily appointments at the methadone clinic results in removal from the program. The addict ends up in withdrawals and seeks street drugs to ease the pain, exacerbating the problem.

This is not only our story. Every one of those homeless people that you see has a family somewhere. Homelessness, like addiction, affects the entire family.

We live with guilt when we sit down at the family table with the empty chair and as we tuck ourselves under warm covers on a cold and stormy night. Holidays and birthdays go by with regrets. What could we have done differently? We know we did the best we could but the guilt still haunts us.

What can you do? Advocate for the poor. Help to keep the recycle centers open. When you see a homeless person, talk to him (or her). Remind them there are people who care. Acknowledge them.

Share what you can even if it is only a smile. Spare change, food, toiletries, even clean socks can be a Godsend. I have a cousin who spends his money on a new jacket before it’s needed and then finds a homeless person for his old one. He was homeless once. He knows.

Remember – there is no guarantee that you will always have a roof over your head.


19 thoughts on “This Man Is My Son

  1. I have read this story several time. It is heartbreaking. I wish it were mandatory reading for every elected official at every level. It opened my eyes and, better yet, made some practical suggestions as to what I can do to help. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Thank you Marjorie. It makes my heart hurt, not only for your son and those like him, but for the forgotten families who love them, who live with the pain and hopelessness of not being able to “love it all better.” Thank you for sharing your story of one of the most complex issues our society faces.

  3. This story is important. So important that it is hard to bear the truth of it, for we all fail when any person is without a home. Thank you, Marjorie, for eloquently sharing your experience of a struggle that many families endure. And thanks for the suggestions for helpful actions. Found your link at Musings From a Patchwork Quilt Life, so one more thanks, to Mary Jo Doig.

  4. Thank you for your clarity and generosity of heart. We always remind our young son and his Scout troop that everyone was once someone’s child. Acknowledging each other is the first step to every day. Like John Prine’s song, Hello In There.

  5. Dear Marjorie,
    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s so meaningful to hear from someone who understands on a deeper level what it means to be the family member of someone who is homeless. Many years ago, when I was 11, my mom showed signs of schizophrenia. My dad (her ex-husband) had to come and get me and my sister. Losing her kids resulted in her moving back in with her mom. When my grandma passed, my mom started wandering. Your description of sitting at the table or being under warm blankets captures what I feel. Even though there are many reasons I couldn’t fix it, the shadow of responsibility is with me always. It makes me feel better to know there are others out there who struggle like this too. Thank you.

  6. This was my brother’s story also. We lived in Walnut Creek in the 1970’s, and he went down the path of addiction in high school. He moved to Arcata and lived in a van up there until his death in 1996 at 35. It’s very difficult to be a family member. Blessings to your family.

  7. This article is heartbreaking and is also my youngest brothers story. Thank you for sharing. I keep bags in my car with socks, warm hats, gloves and other items and hand them out when I see someone in need. I pray my brother will get the help he needs one day.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. In these times, it is not only mental illness or drug addiction that causes homelessness. My brother, now 58, is homeless for the first time in his life and has had to abandon his wife with Alzheimer’s at a hospital, due to job loss, and eventual foreclosure and eviction in Marin County. My dear friend’s older sister, late 60’s, has lived homeless for years, in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities for serious physical conditions, on long waiting lists for shelters. We are all simply one paycheck away from being on the streets. I have always been prepared to help the homeless with basic needs and will continue to do so regardless of what put them there. Everyone has a story and everyone has a family suffering somewhere. Bless you.

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