Why Don't You Just Get a Job?

A few weeks ago I wrote about my friend Eugene.  Eugene is homeless and mentally ill and we've become friends over the past few months. It feels a little bit weird prefacing every story about Eugene with "he's homeless and mentally ill," as though that somehow defines him. Those things do not define Eugene. But they do make life difficult for him and those difficulties are relevant in sharing the story of my friendship with Eugene.

I always ask Eugene for permission to write about him. I don't write what he doesn't want me to write. I don't share these stories or pictures without his consent, which I ask for before I write each post. I believe his mental capacity is enough that he understands what I'm asking.

About a month ago, Eugene told me that he had to go to court. I asked if I could go with him, and he said yes. I knew that Eugene had no real home, and I could tell from our conversations that he was living with some sort of mental disability. I thought that maybe if I went to court with him, I could see exactly where he was in the system, and maybe I could somehow help him have a life that was maybe...a little...easier?

I don't know.

I get these ideas and I don't know what I'm doing and I don't know what I hope the outcome will be, but I live with this constant voice in my head that's telling me that I can help. I've had to quiet it down occasionally because sometimes, the truth is - I can't help. And if I try to help, I'm going to screw everything up. OR, people don't want my help and my trying to help just pisses them off. OR, I try to help people so much that I forget my own needs and I end up completely screwed. It's a little bit like an illness that I've had to learn to manage - this "chronic helping."

So, with all of the hope and ignorance and desire to help that I could gather, I went to court with Eugene for the first time. My friend Dannette owns a bar across the street from me. She also considers Eugene a friend, so we all went to court together. Strength in numbers, or something.

The thing is, even though I went  with Eugene to try and help...court freaks me out. I'm pretty much the least qualified person to go help someone out in a court date. I had to go once regarding a car that I had let sit in my driveway for two years. I was in school for biology and somehow, I thought that the judge had decided that I was an environmental terrorist. I just sat there hysterically sobbing the whole time, while everyone in the courtroom looked at me as though I were completely insane.

Another time I had to testify against someone who had brought a gun into a club I worked at. I basically just quivered and mumbled and pointed and tried not to cry.

I don't know what to do in court. If I'm not in trouble, I feel like I'm in trouble. If I am in trouble, I make the trouble a thousand times bigger than it actually is. Judges are super intimidating.

But I went to court with Eugene...even though I don't even know if I'm allowed to be in court with Eugene. We were lucky enough to run into a friend who gave us some advice, and when Eugene was called to the bench, I went with him. The judge asked who I was and I stammered my name and said that I was a friend and an advocate for Eugene. My face turned bright red. I was shaking. I almost cried. What the hell is an advocate, anyway? I just threw that out there because I felt like it made me sound like I was legitimately supposed to be there.

I do not know what I am doing, and I am totally freaked out.

This was apparently a second appearance for Eugene. At his first appearance he had asked for time to hire an attorney. Eugene doesn't have a real understanding of what an attorney costs. He believes the state's attorney is his best friend, and that he can represent Eugene in court. Before we went in front of the judge, Eugene and I talked about the importance of asking for a public defender. Eugene cannot afford a lawyer. He has no real income.

The judge looked at me, rolled his eyes and said something about Eugene being here with "his assistant." He then asked Eugene if he had a lawyer. Eugene did not. Eugene started saying something about the state's attorney being his lawyer. He pointed at another lawyer and said, "that's my lawyer," at which point the lawyer stated that Eugene hadn't hired him. Eugene wasn't making a lot of sense and the judge leaned back in his chair, said that he had asked a yes or no question, and that he was now starting to get mad.

Look...I get it. Eugene is really well known in the courts. They're all probably sick of seeing him. But the thing is...his mental disability is obvious, even if you talk to him for just a couple of minutes. It's clear he's homeless. How does this process, where we pretend that Eugene completely understands what's going on, benefit anyone? The judge? The court? The city? The people? Eugene? Who benefits from this? What problem are we solving?

At the end of the day, Eugene denied a public defender and got an extension to come back to court on another date, with a private lawyer - a private lawyer that he still won't have the money to pay for, and so he'll show up without an attorney - again.

I wonder how much that experience cost the courts? What was the point?

Dannette and I went back to court with Eugene the next day, and I again went before the judge with him. A different judge. A remarkable difference in how we were treated. This judge also obviously knew Eugene, was compassionate and caring, and we were assigned a public defender.

There were two charges of  "pedestrian soliciting contributions on a highway" and one charge of "improper pedestrian crossing of road." The state's attorney offered 150 days in jail, with one day credited for each one day served - so 75 days.

To clarify some points I made in a previous blog post - Eugene is homeless. He does not have access to a shower. He has a mental disability. He does not smell very good, he does not make a lot of sense. His chances of getting hired by anyone for a legitimate job are pretty much zero. His options are to basically go away and quietly die, so that society doesn't have to deal with him anymore, or to do what he needs to do to survive. So he does what he needs to do to survive. As he should.

Since 2010, Eugene has been ticketed and/or arrested 106 times.This is what it's like to be a homeless person who can't access resources and can't get a job. These are the things he has been ticketed/arrested for: Obstructing a driver on the highway. Soliciting a ride on the roadway. Soliciting employment on a highway. Walking on the highway. Trespassing. Improper crossing of the road. Panhandling. Yelling in the street. Using the wrong crosswalk.

There are other charges. Disorderly conduct. Public Intoxication. A paraphernalia charge. But most of them...I believe over 90 of them...are for the initial reasons listed above.

(Some people might say, "oh, but look - a paraphernalia charge! Drugs, so, he's a bad guy." Well, first, drugs don't make somebody a bad guy, and second, Eugene picked a pipe up off of the ground, got arrested for trespassing, got in trouble for the pipe. I believe that Eugene doesn't lie to me, and I've never seen him high. I also believe that if you've already been arrested 100 times, no one in the world is going to believe that you "just found" a pipe on the ground. Except for me. Because I know Eugene and I know he picks up everything he sees on the ground.)

I also want to point out that I am well aware that Eugene has a police record that spans 30+ years. I'm only able to access records starting when he was 17. I know some of Eugene's history. My own family history mirrors some of his. I know when all of the odds are against you, and your support system is non-existent, how very easy it is to veer the wrong way at a young age, and never be able to find your way back on track.

So, I don't really care about anyone else's version of Eugene or about the mistakes he made in his past. I care about the person I know.

And the person I know is basically being repeatedly arrested for being homeless and mentally disabled. He is repeatedly being pushed through the courts, and this is what he will do for eternity until someone addresses the root of these problems.

The courts don't seem to have any interest in doing this. I don't believe that Eugene has ever gone to court with an advocate. Together, Eugene and I rejected the States Attorney's offer of 150 days. Eugene had an appointment at the Human Services Center, we were going to do an assessment, we were going to see if we could get new medication, explore job programs, housing programs, anything we could find. And for the first time, Eugene had a support system willing to navigate this process with him.

The State's Attorney came back with an offer of 60 days. We reiterated that we were making attempts to travel a different path, and declined the offer. After all, 2 months in jail isn't going to teach Eugene how NOT to be disadvantaged. So we're going back to court.

Yesterday another solicitation for employment charge came through, so we now have 3 court dates in January.

Today we had our assessment with Human Services. I was going to meet Eugene at 9 am this morning, so we could go together. Last night, at 1:30 am, as I was driving home from work, I saw Eugene walking down the sidewalk. It was snowing. Kind of raining. Mostly cold. I pulled over and asked him where he was going. He said he wanted to make sure that he was going to make his appointment in the morning, so he was just going to sleep under the stairs behind my bar.

Again - snowy, rainy, mostly cold. Everything is wet. The stairs behind my bar sit on top of mud. Eugene has no hat, no gloves, no winter coat.

So that's not going to work. But I don't know what I'm doing and also, boundaries. Boundaries are really important. Eugene can't come home with me.

As luck would have it...or God...or patrons at the bar had been extraordinarily generous with me that evening. Like, not just a little bit generous. Really generous. Like - generous to the point that I was like, "this is too much. I have to give this back or something."

And here comes Eugene. I thought about using the money to get him a hotel room for the night, but Eugene will need help for more than one night. So we went to Walmart and bought a coat, some gloves, a hat, a yellow safety vest and a cold weather sleeping bag. We went to McDonald's and bought some food. Then we drove around for a while trying to find a place where he could sleep - where he might find some dry shelter, and hopefully not get arrested.

You might be thinking, "Why not go to a shelter?"

Because apparently it's just not that simple.  But the shelter system discussion is for another day...

I picked Eugene up this morning and we went to the assessment. I think it went well, but we won't really know anything until next week. We also have to be on a weird schedule because Eugene doesn't have a phone or a home, so the only way that I have of being sure to get information to him is our weekly meeting on Wednesdays. So everything always has to wait a week.

After the assessment, we called Social Security to try and find out what was going on with his disability. After nearly an hour on hold, we gave up. We're going to try going in person to the local office next week. I'm going to call some local agencies and see what options are available. And in the meantime, the weather will get colder, and I don't know where Eugene will sleep.

I have a car and a phone and I can drive and I'm usually able to speak coherently. I can do all of these things and I am already exhausted with this process. I already have a running mantra in my head of "This is fucked. This is SO fucked."

In the meantime, Eugene keeps telling me how blessed he is.  And he wanted me to make sure I shared another picture of  him working, in his safety vest, which he has turned into his "work uniform."

The Church Mouse gave Eugene that suitcase in the background. The owners at Tasty's got him some new clothes and wrote on his vest to create his"uniform." Dannette from the Basket Case provided those socks on his feet. My customers made it possible for him to have that hat and that vest. This neighborhood has embraced Eugene.

That is a look of pride on Eugene's face, because he is working, which is all he wants to do...

These connections and these experiences are humbling, you guys. Overwhelming. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Life changing.

And I still don't know what I'm doing. Eugene kind of knows what he's doing. We're figuring this shit out. I just wanted to share this journey with let you to know that this is really hard, and "why don't you just get a job?" sounds so easy...but sometimes life just doesn't work like that.

I didn't know it was like this. I've been homeless, but I didn't know ...really was like this.

Sometimes life is so much harder than it looks.

And still, Eugene will tell you that he is blessed.

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