There are two seasonal stories in American journalism. The greenhouse effect is our summer story. Homelessness is our winter story. Out of season, we don't hear very much about either. Now that it is cold, no one is much concerned with the warming of the atmosphere. And when it is hot, there is far more concern about the waste washing up on our beaches than about the wretchedness that has settled on our streets.
Well, it is cold again, and the cycle of homeless stories has begun. One story you don't hear about much this time around, however, is that of the cause celebre of last year's homeless season, Joyce Brown, a.k.a. Billie Boggs.Brown was the most famous challenge to New York City's Project HELP. HELP sent doctors and nurses in vans to take the homeless mentally ill off the street, against their will if necessary, and to a psychiatric hospital for shelter and treatment. Brown was living on a grate on E. 65th when she was picked up by Project HELP. She was well known to her neighbors for defecating on the street, for burning paper money, for screaming obscenities at black men, and for otherwise bizarre behavior. Her street name came from the TV talk show host, Bill Boggs, about whom she fantasized.
Claiming that she was a "professional" street person and not crazy, she challenged her hospitalization in court. Her case was quickly picked up by the New York branch of the ACLU which was looking for a case with which to challenge involuntary hospitalization by Project HELP.
Articulate and not visibly crazy on the witness stand, Joyce Brown was the NYCLU's best case. It could hardly have won with other Project HELP cases, like the man from Central Park who lived in a plastic bag with rats or the woman from Grand Central Station whose complaint was the plutonium in the water.
Brown and her lawyers did well in court and won their case. The victory was overturned on appeal, but New York finally let Brown go when the courts would not allow it to treat Brown against her will. She was released on Jan. 19. By the end of the day she had done interviews with three local TV news shows. She then went national, doing "60 Minutes" and "Donahue." Then she went cosmic. She was guest speaker at the Harvard Law School Forum. Her speech, "The Homeless Crisis: A Street View," was well received.
Having proved a useful instrument for the ACLU, a passing amusement for TV, and now a handy symbol for the legal militants of Cambridge, Mass., Joyce Brown returned to relative obscurity.
What happened to her? She fell apart again, as chronic schizophrenics do. New York magazine found her less than three weeks after her Harvard debut back to panhandling, swearing at black people, and screaming so loudly that a nearby shopkeeper had to close his front door. On Sept. 7, she was arrested in a Harlem housing project, charged with possession of heroin and hypodermic needles. The case was later conditionally dismissed. She now lives in a single-room occupancy hotel.
One of the hallmarks of mental illness is that it impairs judgment. That is why when a mentally ill person commits a crime, he can be found not guilty for reasons of insanity. The only justification for such a verdict is that the mentally ill have somehow lost their essential free will. If that can happen to the mentally ill who commit crimes, it is absurd to deny that it can happen to the mentally ill who are homeless.
The mentally ill who live in utter degradation on our streets are not there by choice. They are there because (1) we have almost totally dismantled the mental health system that used to care for these people and (2) we have so expanded the limits of their pseudo-liberty that society is prevented at every turn from intervening to help them.
Rounding people up, taking them off the streets, and putting them into clean hospital beds where they can get food and shelter and appropriate medical care (and a gradual transition to halfway houses and perhaps back to family) is not an answer for the homeless who are merely poor. But it is an answer for the army of homeless who are mentally ill. It is a crime to deny care to these homeless simply because we don't know how best to help the others.
Today you can intervene to help the homeless mentally ill only if you can prove that they are dangerous to themselves or to others. That standard is not just unfeeling, it is uncivilized. The standard should not be dangerousness but helplessness.
Society has an obligation to save people from degradation, not just death. Until we rid ourselves of the misplaced civil-libertarian notion of not interfering with the lives of most desperate and helpless people in our society, the homeless mentally ill will always be with us, though they only really make news when they start freezing to death.