I had not seen him at Manna House for several weeks. His symptoms of mental illness had been worsening before he disappeared. This morning he arrived wearing the telltale signs of a stay in the country jail, 201 Poplar. On his feet were jail issue brown flip-flops. His clothing consisted of loose fitting greyish-white sweatpants and a white t-shirt. His socks matched the sweatpants. They had once been white but were now grey from the dust and dirt of the streets. He did not carry any other belongings.
Most noticeable were the tremors in his arms and hands. Coffee spilled from the sides of his shaking cup. The tremors were likely from antipsychotic drugs administrated while he was in jail. A guest saw the tremors and said to me, “Chemical control. Bet he was heavily sedated in jail.”
I felt like I was watching a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”—an old movie that gave a horrific look at the inside of a state mental hospital. Nurse Ratched must work at 201 Poplar. A little research reveals that “Fewer than 55,000 Americans currently receive treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, almost 10 times that number — nearly 500,000 — mentally ill men and women are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons” (“The New Asylums,” FRONTLINE, May 10, 2005).
The National Alliance for the Mental Ill (NAMI) reports that, “An estimated 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46% live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.” Additionally, “Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have ‘a recent history’ of a mental health condition.”
Another guest had arrived at Manna House after a stay in jail. He came to me looking for a place where he might get treatment for his mental illness.
“I have severe depression. I’ve known it for years. I’ve gone the route of trying to ignore it, or trying to cover it up by drugs and drinking. I need help. I heard about this place. Can you look them up and give me a phone number?”
I looked it up. I gave him the number. A few days later I saw him again at Manna House and I asked him, “Did you call that place?”
“I did. They don’t have any room for me.”
“Same old, same old, I guess.”
On any given morning at Manna House somewhere around thirty or forty percent of our guests exhibit symptoms of mental illness noticeable to even our untrained eyes. I say “untrained eyes” because none of us are psychologists or psychiatrists. We are just ordinary people trying to offer some hospitality, a place where people can feel welcome and be safe and be treated with respect.
The hospitality we offer at Manna House insists on the human dignity of each guest, including our guests with mental illness. Mental illness continues to carry a kind of moral stigma, as if persons with mental illness are somehow morally at fault for their illness. And, of course, homelessness carries a moral stigma too. “Homeless persons” our culture says “are dirty, dangerous, disgusting, different, and damn lazy.” Add in that many of our guests with mental illness who are homeless are also Black, and you get a triple stigma. No wonder prison becomes the preferred societal way of treating people who are housing deprived, Black, and mentally ill.
Hospitality rejects that stigmatizing and instead affirms the sacred dignity of each person, made in the image of God. We not only believe, we also know that our guests with mental illness are not defined by their illness. They are persons with good days and bad, gifts and liabilities, and they bring the very presence of God into Manna House.
Another guest comes from across the street. I can not only see him coming, I can also hear him coming. He speaks with a loud voice, gesticulating wildly, speaking into the air, looking upward as he walks. When he comes upon onto the front porch he gets up close to my face. His eyes are intense. I feel like he is staring into my soul. He is a tall man and he towers over me. “Pete” he says with eyes that now take on a conspiratorial wink, “Jesus rose from the dead. They’re a lot of dead people out there” and he points to the streets, “But some day the rising is gonna come.”