BACK IN THE '60s when the first strange ladies with bulging bags began appearing on the streets and foraging in garbage bins, I was as astonished as everyone else. A new word -- "bag ladies" -- was born as we, feeling superior, discussed these strange people, their strange behavior and the whole strange phenomenon we now call homelessness.
Now, two decades later, I am homeless myself, and our cities and towns teem with others like me. Most of you are no longer surprised by the homeless. But you are understandably offended, and deeply disturbed by our presence -- by this refugee population whose numbers are growing alarmingly. So now Washington -- like cities all over America and Europe -- is struggling to deal with its homeless hundreds. Yet so far no one has gotten very far. Nothing is working satisfactorily.
In my view, the big mistake people make in trying to help the homeless is that they expect, or hope, that one single solution will solve the problems of all us. Generally we, the homeless, are viewed as strands on the same gray mop. Some people say we are all crazy; some that we are all lazy; some that we are all poor; some that we are all drunks or drug addicts; some that we are all ordinary people fallen on hard times.
My view from the park bench, from the narrow cot in crowded shelters, from the shuffling lines at feeding stations is that we are not all alike by any means and that, in fact, the solution for one of us can spell disaster for another. Low-cost housing, for example, is a wonderful idea for many of us. Yet that "solution" would be no more than a sentimental gesture for women who throw rolls of toilet paper down the toilet or, forgetting to take their tranquilizers, tear off refrigerator doors. Similarly, many women seem to need cheap shelter only until an emergency is over; many, many others remain in the shelter system for years.
How else are we different from one another? Here are some of the homeless ladies I have known in the past six years:
The Child, in her sixties, had had a stroke. She babbled and seemed to have regressed to childhood. She regularly got money from her grown children, and her daughter desperately wanted her mother to live with her -- with plenty of room for private accommodations.. But she refused repeatedly until, finding herself too often hit over the head and robbed (shelters frequently are located in high-crime neighborhoods), she finally gave in and went home. It took years.
The Tippler is a vigorous, bright and often charming woman in her fifties who worked for the government for over 20 years. She is an alcoholic and a shoplifter, and not above stealing from her friends. Every evening she staggers into a shelter -- if she can make it. Sometimes she falls flat on her back and lies sprawled on the sidewalk all night in a drunken stupor.
"You can't cure an alcoholic, if he doesn't want to be cured," she chirps. "And I don't want to be cured."
Without any remorse, she tells me (our cots are adjacent) that just about every day she slips into a liquor store at noon when it is very busy and filches a half gallon and a fifth of vodka, which she consumes largely herself or with a buddy. She has been seriously injured in car accidents and in falls; she has been raped and sodomized while drunk; she has been thrown out of numerous shelters and long ago was disowned by her family.
The Broken Heart, a handsome woman in her thirties, immigrated to this country to follow an American man who had been her lover in Hungary. She was an immensely likable, hardworking, humorous woman until, suddenly, she would fall into a crying jag. She would become depressed for months at a time and, in a mixture of languages, declare that nothing, really, was worthwhile. One day, following a doomed love affair (he was married), she announced to a number of people that she was going to commit suicide. True to her word, she jumped off the 14th Street Bridge.
The Gourmand, plump and in her early thirties, can chat about life in Europe and Asia. Growing up, she traveled from school to school following her divorced mother, who worked for the U.S. government. She gorges so much that at times she gags at the table as she forces the food down. She plaits her long blond hair in girlish pigtails and wears short, tight dresses; she looks like an enormously fat baby. Although she is articulate and clearly capable, she refuses to work (or see a psychiatrist). She keeps talking about looking for a job and engages others to help her in what seems like a sincere search when, in fact, she spends her days idling, seeking enjoyment, passing the time until the next meal.
The Tigress, in her thirties, is easy-going unless someone insists she follow directions or finish what she started; then she yells and curses, demanding her rights. She often indulges cheerfully in petty prostitution, ducking off into the bushes in exchange for a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarets. Sometimes she talks loud and long, whether anyone is listening or not. In one of these monologues, she spoke in shock, in outrage, about the day she discovered her mother in bed with the mother's niece. "My mother! In bed! With her NIECE!"
The Queen -- now that it is getting cold -- will be coming off the streets and into a shelter. She moves like a little wounded doe when anyone approaches her. All day long she stations herself in one or two places, perhaps facing the wall, perhaps near a garbage pail. She eats and sleeps on the floor. Once her jaw was hideously swollen from bad teeth. It was warm yet, and she was still on the street. I urged her to see a dentist. That was one of the few times the Queen was grateful for any show of kindness. Usually, for all her seeming vulnerability, her pitiousness, she is shockingly imperious and disdainful, queen of her domain, despising the world, scornful of those who reach out to her.
The Lazybody, 25, from Taiwan, is an exchange student. Or is she? She wants to go to school so that she can teach English as a second language, she says. Or she wants to find domestic work. But always something interferes; always there is some impediment. She lies around in bed day after day quietly going over notes, reading books, sleeping.
The Lonelyheart, in her sixties, worked as a waitress for some 20 years, she says. She has children. They never come to see her. She had two husbands. One was an alcoholic, whom she felt compelled to leave; the other, an oddly religious man with whom she would spend all Sunday in church, died, she says in her wispy voice, from overeating.
The Lesbians, in their twenties, are married. Their existence is one long screeching psychodrama, often involving astonished strangers in odd harangues and threats over imagined flirtations. Their life style consumes all their energy.
The Collector, also in her twenties, has a face like a brown silk rose. In the shelter a few days, she gathered bags and bags and bags of clothing she got from donations, plus a few stolen things, for a bright and independent future. She has two children whose whereabouts remained vague. She was full of energy and told us that she had landed herself a cleaning job. Then one day she was gone. Where? What happened?
Aside from homelessness itself, these women and their hundreds of sisters and brothers have little in common. No single plan will be of much use to them. I know that many sincere public officials and sensitive private citizens are working hard to help. But things obviously are not going right. Though I certainly am far from being an expert in curing the problems of homelessness, my unique experience convinces me that several steps not yet tried might put us on a more productive path.
First, the the homeless should be diagnosed and then special shelters should be set up for each group -- for the elderly, for alcoholics, for drug addicts, for those with a manageable mental illness, and so forth -- as we already have for homeless pregnant women.
As things stand now, we have a hodgepodge of people in a hodgepodge of shelters. The system is awkward and it can be oddly cruel, as when alcoholics receive a government check and use it to stay drunk all the time. They sober up only for a few days near the end of the month when the money runs out.
Because of the boat-bailing way the shelter system has sprung up, it has no benevolent bureaucratiation. Each shelter works as a separate suzerainty -- with a young staff that is often too inexperienced to deal efficiently with the tides of people who wash up on their doorsteps. Now that we know that homelessness is not going to go away of itself, it is time to take a long and broad view. Instead of a shelter-by-shelter approach directed by shifting personnel and volunteers, we need a permanent, coordinated system that deals not just with the city but with the suburbs as well. If that were done, for example, an alcholic woman could be placed a home with other alcholics and receive specific and tough treatment. Instead, she now wanders from one shelter to another, whose social workers don't know her history and aren't wise to her.
In short, we must get homeless people into appropriate programs. Otherwise, efforts are wasted or, in some cases, a would-be beneficiary can instead become a victim of good intentions. Though I applaud Mayor Koch's efforts in New York to help the hard-core street persons by hospitalizing them -- as my experience tells me they will often endanger themselves -- my experience, also tell me they are not necessarily going to a better existence.
In this regard, I believe fervently that one popular method of helping the homeless -- the use of psychotropic drugs -- has gotten out of hand. I realize, of course, that for some people, drugs along with psychotherapy are the readiest, if not the best, remedies we have. But they should not be used indiscriminately. Consider these different experiences:
The Pursued takes drugs. When she does not, she charges about wildly striking defensive poses against invisible enemies; once she stabbed another woman. With drugs she is placid and pleasant.
The Beauty refuses to take drugs. Once, she says, she was Miss California. Her father and mother are buried in the Arctic Circle. She has killed 800 people. The FBI forced her to take cocaine. She is going to run for the Senate. When social workers at the House of Ruth suggest she take drugs, she replies, "I'm not crazy." She walks around all day with her arms over her head whispering. One thing I believe: she could have been Miss California. She is indeed very beautiful.
The Backslider takes drugs. A school teacher, she lived in shelters for about two years. Every time she thought she was fine and went back to work, she suffered a breakdown. But now, after getting accustomed to drugs, she says she feels absolutely normal. She has a job she likes.
Miss Tripwire takes drugs. When she stopped taking them, she landed in a psychiatric ward; for days she held up her leg, fearing that if she lowered it to the floor, she would start the Third World War. Now she has a job and a social life.
The Hippie took drugs and landed in a psychotic episode. A flower child of the 60's, she had abused drugs for years. "I was the last person who should have taken drugs," she said. Her brother helped her pull herself together, and now she has a very good job.
Then there was my own experience -- a nightmare. After a year of homelessness -- which I spent in stunned disbelief that I was living among people whose sentences I could not parce, where I was rolled out of the shelter in the morning seven days a week including Christmas, and herded in at night to sleep (maybe) among a hostile and often stinking tribe, where I wept in self pity to acknowledge that I was grateful for yet another glob of macaroni on a soggy paper plate -- I betook myself to a clinic and was given a prescription with few questions asked.
At first I took drugs willingly, even eagerly. The immediate effect was startling and ghastly. The first drug seemed to knock out my automatic nervous system; I had to think through consciously the process of walking, step by step. Other drugs made me feel that my soul had left and that my body alone remained, and I stumbled about on the streets just keeping that shell from injury. Under still another, I grew frantic and raced around the streets all day, arriving at one place and then jumping up to rush to another.
The trouble is that a patient is expected to find the right drug by trial and error, wading through the pharmacopia and monitoring the effects, one drug after another, without much professional guidance. A homeless person is, of course, wandering around the streets while he goes through this. Eventually I became convinced that drugs would not cure me, but my pleas were angrily dismissed by the shelter providers.
Wedged down as I am among the homeless, I might have become their unblinking advocate. But I have not. While we, the homeless, need a zealot like Mitch Snyder to fight for us, surely society-at-large has rights, too. The public has a right not to be offended, harrassed and embarrassed.
Even in the laid-back atmosphere of Snyder's Community for Creative Non-Violence, we felt the insult of people who defecated on the stairs, who urinated wherever the urge took them. When caught, such people were summarily thrown out. Few of us could adapt to the incessant blast of hard-rock stations. Refusal to cooperate eventually exhausted patience and led to fury and violence. Those people, too, were thrown out -- as were those who refused to bathe.
Everyone has rights, after all; and if some people spin way outside the social sphere, surely some of their rights are forfeit. The suffering of the weak and wandering arouses pity rightly; but, pitying, one should not be tempted into sentamentality.
The great weakness of the shelter system as it stands now is this human reality: We do crazy things and eventually we are thrown. Or something goes wrong and out we go. Maybe someone doesn't like what we've done or said or who we are, and we're gone. Nobody has a clear idea of what to do with us, so we drift from shelter to shelter for years until, one day, we die.
Pia McKay is a former English teacher in D.C. public schools with a masters degree from Columbia University. She became a homeless person in 1981 after she began having psychotic episodes relating to her foster childhood. She has lived in shelters since then and has been unable to sustain a steady job. She described her experiences in an Outlook article in February 1986.