DOWN AND OUT AND INSAN
Second in a series
Jessie and Clara Gillespie, an elderly couple surrounded by transients in the historic Oakland-University Park neighborhood, do not always confront the homeless with pistols and shotguns. When they are not protecting themselves from burglary and violence, they admit they are overwhelmed with questions.
"We saw this man with two babies and we tried to help," said Jessie. "He said some woman gave him the babies. He didn't even know whose kids they were."
Overcoming their shock, the Gillespies did what they could.
"I bathed those kids and went out and bought them diapers," recalls Clara. "Next thing you know, this woman claiming to be their mother showed up and took the kids back from this man."
The Gillespies didn't know what to do. It's a feeling they often get dealing with the hundreds of homeless who are their neighbors in the area of 15th Avenue and Van Buren.
"There was this young woman who was clearly a mentally ill girl. This was about a year and a half ago," said Jessie. "You think we could get her help? We absolutely could not. I noticed her out there [in nearby Woodland Park] dancing and singing. I went in and got her a cold Coke; it was so hot, hot, hot, in the summer. She said she was waiting for Elvis."
The elderly couple's contact with the disturbed young woman went on for months. The Gillespies produced a list of the various agencies they called, none of whom was able to provide aid.
"She had to sign an agreement to be helped but she just wouldn't do it," said Jessie, referring to the law that says virtually no one, even someone clearly mentally ill, can be committed without their own authorization.
Amazed at the concept that insane people cannot get treatment unless they are sane enough to recognize their own insanity and are willing to put it in writing, Gillespie concluded his story, "A man and a woman came out from one of the agencies and asked if we wanted to keep her."
The crazy woman waiting for Elvis is one of thousands dumped onto the streets of America during the deinstitutionalization of the insane that occurred from the mid-Sixties through the early Seventies.
The obligatory stories on the homeless around the holidays seldom mention the insane. In an endless repetition of the media hype of the past few years, the transient population profiled for Thanksgiving is always the family down on its luck but eager for that next forty-hour-a-week paycheck. And while families constitute a portion of the homeless, they are a minority.
Judy Almy, program coordinator for the homeless with Phoenix South Community Mental Health Services, estimates that as much as 40 percent of the transient population are alcoholics or drug abusers and another 40 percent are mentally ill.
When Arizona deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, the population at the state hospital dropped from 1,500 to 500. The locals were joined on Valley boulevards by mentally ill snowbirds like Wolfman.
Wolfman is looking good. He's got on a clean, sporty shirt that he wears with a new pair of shorts. His sandals cover clean feet. If his face were caked in dried blood and dirt, his deep-set eyes might make you nervous, but today they twinkle in contrast against a very full and neatly trimmed beard. His hair is perfect. He has a hole in the middle of his head where a tooth ought to be, but that little gap is not enough to stop you from noticing his charm.
Wolfman is nuts and has the shock therapy to prove it.
He's been confined to mental institutions in California, Kentucky, Texas, and Florida, where he was a frequent guest.
"I grew up in Miami," said Wolfman. "They say the Cubans ruined Miami but that ain't true. The Cubans were hard workers. It was the Colombians. One of my best friends was this Peruvian guy who was killed by a Colombian who hit him in the head with an ax. All over buying a girl a drink."
Wolfman began running away from home at the age of fourteen. He worked after school at a carnival but was soon working full time at a race track. By the time he was eighteen, he was diagnosed as manic-depressive.
For decades Wolfman has migrated from the street to the state hospital to the highway.
At a Salvation Army in Mobile, Alabama, he hooked up with his latest traveling partner and slowly they hitchhiked toward the warmth of Phoenix's sun.
"Now this guy was crazy," said Wolfman. "Because I was from Florida and because his ex-wife was living in Florida, he thought she'd sent me to Mobile to find him. The guy was a little paranoid and very angry about everything."
Wolfman's partner, who'd also logged time in state hospitals, finally stepped over the line in Willcox, Arizona. During a brief argument, Wolfman found himself being choked to death by his younger and larger traveling companion. After going limp, Wolfman was released from his friend's death grip. The next morning Wolfman set out by himself for Phoenix.
Wolfman had heard about the homeless shelters in Phoenix from other transients and had a pretty fair notion of his destination. He checked into the Central Arizona Shelter Service building (CASS) his first night in town and stayed there as long as he could.
At 6 a.m., he'd be turned out of CASS, and Wolfman said he'd make his way to the bus station downtown where he panhandled, telling marks he needed fare to make it to job interviews.
"By the time the liquor stores opened, I'd have $5 or $6 and I could buy some malt liquor or M.D. [Mad Dog orange jubilee--a fortified wine]. I'd have my drink and then keep my appointments."
Because he was staying at CASS, Wolfman was obligated to demonstrate that he was seeking employment or help. These interviews were his "appointments."
Wolfman played the game and continued to spiral downward.
"I'd get in trouble when I started drinking and decided to try on [fight] those younger guys. When you're in the shelter, it's not too dangerous. On the streets, well . . . . If you showed a little affluence around people, it would get you in trouble. I bought this guy three six-packs and a fifth of vodka. I bought myself three six-packs and a fifth as well. I go over to take a B.M. and slip off my pants. The guy runs off with my pants. This guy was 22 and just got out of state prison in California where he ran and worked out all the time. I probably couldn't have handled him even if I could have caught him which I couldn't. I got my pants back, but he got me for $86."
Wolfman's alcoholism only aggravated his mental illness. Booze diluted his medication to the point that his depression became overwhelming. Afraid of being trapped, he stopped sleeping indoors and became chronically withdrawn.
Wolfman got lucky when one of his "appointments" turned out to be with J.R. Murphy.
A former state legislator from Delaware who lost everything and became homeless himself, Murphy got back on his feet and was employed by Phoenix South Community Mental Health Center, one of the transient services located near the CASS shelter.
With a marginal budget, Phoenix South is dedicated to reaching the mentally ill too disturbed to seek help for themselves. The agency employs four caseworkers who drive the streets of Phoenix looking for the individuals the rest of us cross the street to avoid.
"I was in bad shape when I met J.R.," said Wolfman. "Three months in a row, doing nothing but be on the bum. I told J.R. I was worn out. He closed the door and I just broke down crying.
"I don't forget when I've been on my ass. If you have some drive, you can do a little better than sleeping in the gutter."
Today, Wolfman's illness is treated with lithium. It allows him to maintain an even keel instead of swinging wildly from euphoria to depression. No longer on the streets, Wolfman lives on the near west side in a group home for the mentally ill. His condition allows him to draw $386 a month from the state in a disability check, of which $330 goes for his monthly room and board. Wolfman's plans include buying a set of painter's whites, a few brushes and rollers and setting himself up as a free-lance house painter.
But even with his lithium, his counseling from the psychiatric staff of Phoenix South, his disability check, Wolfman is not ever likely to get a job with IBM.
Not very long ago, Wolfman made a big score and then squandered his small fortune over a long weekend fixing Mexican brown heroin in a shooting gallery not far from his group home.
"If I get real money, I'm going to score heroin," admits Wolfman.
It is this sort of admission that drives people like Jessie and Clara Gillespie around the bend. Every day they see the drunks, the crazies, the addicts, the homeless by the hundreds hanging around their home. The thought that the state is giving money to insane people who throw it away on alcohol or dope nearly drives the Gillespies crazy.
"Fact: fifty states, and Arizona leads all fifty in handing out food stamps," said an outraged Jessie Gillespie. "Why do we do it?"
Despite Gillespie's hyperbole, the real fact is economics. Because of his mental illness, Wolfman can only take care of himself in short bursts. It costs Arizona $386 a month to keep Wolfman off the streets and tranquil with the help of Phoenix South. Given his head, Wolfman would end up a ward of the state in a mental institution where the tab, conservatively estimated, would run $3,100 a month.
"For the first time in a long time, I don't have to worry about where I'll sleep at night. I can't tell you how much pressure that takes off," said Wolfman. "My mind has settled down. I'm even reading the Bible twice a day."
To be continued
Four caseworkers drive the streets of Phoenix looking for the individuals the rest of us cross the street to avoid.
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