I want to tell you this morning about a forest preserve near my house in Chicago -- and, yes, I will wind up talking about the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, so bear with me.
The City has a recycling drop-off center in the parking lot of this forest preserve. There used to be a big toboggan slide there, too, though that's since closed. I believe there's a pool in the summer. There's a bus turnaround intruding on the forest preserve on the Milwaukee Avenue side of the forest preserve. It's near here that you may catch a glimpse of what looks to be a lean-to, constructed of trash and branches.
The woman who lives there is short, understandably skinny, dresses in smelly rags and a stocking cap and usually is seen pushing a shopping cart.
I don't know who's living in the lean-to I spotted recently in a patch of green by the entrance to the westbound Kennedy Expressway at Cumberland, a couple of miles away from the forest preserve. I will bet you any sum you care to wager that this is no "fort" built by local kids.
It's a cliche that the three most important words in real estate are location, location and location. This little patch of green has it all: The scraggly bushes in which the lean-to may be seen are well removed from the street but nearby is a large grocery store and several hotels and restaurants. There's prime dumpster-diving to be found at these locations.
You don't have to be downtown or in some poor, heavily urbanized area to see homeless people. They are all around us. We have to step around them sometimes to get from Point A to Point B.
But these folks are not the hobos or tramps that wave happily from a passing freight train in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night or the "forgotten men" of the Depression-era fantasy My Man Godfrey. Far too many of the street people we see today are suffering from serious mental illness. In another generation, these folks would have been institutionalized.
The mental institutions that existed in my youth are almost all gone now. People who would have been cared for in these places are in prison now, or living under viaducts, or squatting in forest preserves or expressway entrances. Some wind up in nursing homes, too often preying on their elderly fellow fellow residents. I realize that mental institutions fell into disfavor because the living conditions were so terrible.
But compared to what?
Compared to living in the bushes and trees?
In the 1980s and 1990s I had a law office in Chicago's River North neighborhood. The CTA Red Line subway (the Howard line in those days) has a stop at Chicago and State. If you go east from the subway station you'll wind up at Northwestern Hospital. This was where a lot of mentally ill people were supposed to go to get their medication. This was the alternative, you see, to institutionalization.
My wife has to get on my case every morning to take a vitamin. Sometimes I'm not compliant. If I can't get to the doctor on my own, my wife will take me. I have a support system. I have a family. What about people who don't have these advantages?
My observation was that more than a few of them got off at Chicago and State and wandered north or south or west -- anywhere but where they were supposed to go. Imagine: mentally ill people weren't always compliant and punctual and reliable.
Which brings us back to Jared Loughner. Pima County, Arizona Sheriff Clarence Dupnik is quoted by the AP this morning as saying that Loughner was "a typical troubled individual who's a loner." He almost certainly acted alone, authorities believe.
That same AP report (the link is to the Chicago Tribune website) describes how Loughner's high school friends had become "sketched out" about him and how Pima Community College, the junior college where Loughner attended classes off and on since 2005, had a number of problems with him:
Between February and September, Loughner "had five contacts with PCC police for classroom and library disruptions," the statement said. He was suspended in September after college police discovered a YouTube video in which Loughner claimed the college was illegal according to the U.S. Constitution.I see commercials on TV almost every night for medicines to help people cope with depression. In our unhappy world, it's alright for people to seek treatment on their own for their mental woes -- but no one will do more than 'recommend counseling' for someone else. Better to expel the kid, or fire the disgruntled employee. Let someone else worry about what to do with the problem. Let the poor unfortunates take care of themselves. If they make the right turn coming out of the subway, they'll get their medicine. If not... well.... Does anyone get committed involuntarily anywhere anymore? And, if someone should be committed, is there any place to put him or her?
He withdrew voluntarily the following month, and was told he could return only if, among other things, a mental health professional agreed he did not present a danger, the school said.
Some mentally ill people go live in the forest preserve; others commit crimes -- sometimes, apparently, quite spectacular, heinous crimes. But we can congratulate ourselves on emptying the mental hospitals because they weren't nice places. And wonder why our prison population is so extraordinarily high.