Friday, August 13, 2004

Street Legal Part V

I've written about our niece Sally and her forays into the underbelly of society. I will continue with her story. It was now apparent to us that Sally was truly living on the streets. That meant sleeping in parks, lying around on the sidewalks and panhandling. There was little we could do for her other than keep in touch and hope she would decide to go home soon. Sally called me about once a week. Our conversations consisted of: "Aunt Maddy?" "Hi Sally how are you?" silence. "What's wrong Sally?" silence. "Are you hurt" "Yes". "Are you alright now ?" "No". "Do you want me to come down?" "Yes". "Do you want me to come down right now?" "Yes."
I would then drop whatever I was doing and drive downtown. It would take me about 40 minutes to get to Sally's home park. Each visit would be similar. I would bring something Sally needed, such as antibiotic ointment, bandaids, chocolate bars, toothpaste, new socks, underwear.
Sally's home was a little parkette in the Soho District of our city. As I described in a previous post, this area was inundated with panhandllers and other street people. You could barely walk by without being accosted for money. Sally fit right in. I would park my car in an alley beside the parkette and just ask anyone around if they had seen Sally. Someone would get up and wander down the street. In a few minutes, Sally would show up and we would drive to a resturant away from the area. (Sally's choice). I suppose she wanted to get away if for only just an hour. This weekly visit became a ritual. The park kids were soon calling me "Aunt Maddy". As soon as they would see my car, one would go look for Sally. They always found her for me.
Invariably, Sally would have a new physical injury. The first week, it was a shoulder blade that was twisted. Her explanation was that she jumped on some guy's back to protect her "friend". Another week is was an infected nose ring, and another was an ulcerated wound on her leg. This explanation was falling off a bike. All these injuries were treated at a free clinic in the area, but living on the dirty street did not aid healing, so Sally was always suffering.
I believe Sally called me becasue she needed mothering. I tried not to be judgemental but I think she often wanted to hear that I disapproved of her lifestyle as it was not a good for her, but cared for her anyway. Unfortunately, her own mother was not a "mothering" kind of woman so at the time I guess I filled that role.
Each week I went to see Sally, she was thinner and more ragged looking. Even though a larger park a block away had outdoor showers available for public use, the grime, grit and dirt clung to everything and no amount of showers could keep anyone clean while living on the street . Also, I think that even with the showers available, many homeless don't use them too often because they don't have soap, towels, clean clothes and mostly they lack the will to feel good about themselves.
Sally was deteriorating daily, but we couldn't do anything to help. I spoke to the police who were always around keeping an eye on the park, and was told that the law stated that unless she became a danger to herself or others, we could do nothing. They said that the best I could do was to continue visiting the parkette and to continue watching out for her. I became "Aunt Maddy" to the police as well as the street kids in the parkette.
I could never could fathom why seemingly bright, healthy and good young people opted to live this life. Certainly there were mentally ill people, and runaway abused kids, but the majority were just average kids from suburbs and small towns. Most were rebelling against parental rules and planned to go back home to school in the fall. Some made it home and some did not.
Street life is very intersting on many levels. It's a family, it's a tribe and it's a culture. It is a haven for the homeless, but it is also a nightmare. Those who leave home because they reject parental authority, quickly find that the street has an authority far darker than parental restrictions could ever be. A runaway who experienced abuse at home, would find the same treatment on the street. The mentally ill, have the worst experiences on the street. They are the least protected and they are prey for every kind of cruelty. Women on the street, like the mentally ill, are also prey for every kind of degradation. Our society allows all this misery in the name of individual freedom.
One day I decided to just go down to the park and try to discover what was really happening to Sally. Since I was known to the "family" of homeless in that area, I was hoping they would talk to me. They did.
I parked my car in the alley and sat down on the grass beside a group of girls. If they hadn't known me, they would never have allowed me to "invade their space". The homeless are very protective of their individual space. We talked a little about the weather etc. I then asked them to tell me about Sally. Sally, as it turned out, despite her tiny size, became belligerant and combative when she was high. She would fight with anyone including the biggest guys around. All those injuries were now explained. She was just trying to hold her own in a primative world where the strong survived. I was told that if she didn't get out of this lifestyle very soon, she would die. I believed them. I knew that she had been beaten, and raped, I just don't know how many times. I asked the girls to tell Sally I had been by and that she should call me as soon as possible. Sally didn't call me, but a social worker with our major mental health facility called me the next morning. Sally was alive and had been admitted under the 72 hour assessment policy. One of the homeowners whose townhouse overlooks the park called the police. At 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Sally was hanging by her feet, face down 5 stories above the ground. She was finally a danger to herself.

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