Intellectually, I know the answer to this question is no. Emotionally, it feels like the answer is yes. I think about it often these days. My brother is homeless -- and in all of my 43 years, I’ve never met another person on earth who has a relative who is homeless. Addicts, alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, convicts, castaways, misfits -- there’s almost no shame in any of those anymore. We have come a long way from St. Elmo’s Fire and the whisper of “cancer” when talking about the black sheep of our families.
But homelessness? That one’s like a dirty bomb. It stops me in my tracks. Imagine what is does to you when I lay it out there in casual conversation.
I have long since become accustomed to the surprise -- shock really -- of others when they ask me if I have any siblings. The conversation turns south pretty quickly after I answer yes. Then comes the seemingly innocuous but oh-so loaded (for me) “How old is he? Where doe he live? Does he have children?”
I am generally evasive -- “He lives in California, no children” -- and I leave it at that. For most of my adult life, the reason I’ve been evasive has been simple -- it was to spare you your discomfort. It’s too awkward to go straight to heroin with a stranger or new friend. Where does the conversation go from there?
For the entirety of my life, my brother has been something: sick, in jail, in rehab, on a friend’s couch, between jobs, off the grid. You name it, he’s been there, done that. We come from a fine upstanding family, too -- you don’t know me, but if you did, you’d be surprised that I have a brother who is a junkie.
But here’s the thing about homelessness that is different for me -- shame. For the first time in my life, I am ashamed. I am ashamed to admit that my brother, Jay, is homeless. I have never before in my life been ashamed of him. Drugs, rehab, jail, mental illness -- yeah, we got those, so what? I have carried each and every one with grace.
So why is homelessness any different? It’s an extension, certainly, of a downward spiral of bad circumstances coupled with bad decisions coupled with bad luck and whatever other sh*t you want to throw in the mix. The difference, I believe, is that when I tell you my brother is homeless, you (society) assume that I can and should do something.
What kind of sister (or mother or father, for that matter) would let her brother be homeless? That’s a good question to which I don’t have a good answer.
I love my brother dearly. We were very close growing up. He was always in trouble; I was always helping him get out of trouble (or funding that trouble unknowingly as he emptied my piggy bank). We were constants in each other’s lives until I was over 30.
I respect Jay and love him. I have always been heartbroken by his life’s trajectory -- the difference from mine is staggering. I have tried to “save” him the same way any loved one tries to save an addict -- alternating between compassion and tough love, enabling and intervention, money and no money, pleas, bargaining, bribery. My family and I have tried it all. Until he wore us out and wore us down. I have sworn off “helping” him too many times to count. Only Jay can save himself -- of course I know that, silly. But it never seems to work.
And so here we are today. August 2016 and my brother is officially and unequivocally living on the streets.
I went to visit him recently. He is connected to an Orthodox Jewish community -- he called home on Passover once to complain that there was no matzo in jail -- where the Rabbi looks out for him and holds his “valuables.” He has offered Jay jobs, set him up with an apartment (which quickly filled with unsavory characters), and kept a watchful eye over him -- for which we are eternally grateful.
The visit was emotional and wonderful and devastating all at the same time. He looked old and withered. But he was my same joyful, hilarious, loving big brother. He took me around his neighborhood -- a two-block square radius that he says he hasn’t left in two years.
To know Jay is to love Jay. He’s like the mayor of his ‘hood. He is kind and quick witted, never violent. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knew I was coming to town and was overjoyed to meet me. I had never in my life met so many homeless people or had real conversations with them. And all the non-homeless people too -- the shop keeper and dry cleaner and convenience store owner -- everyone greeted me by name and told me how much they loved Jay -- and hey, I should help him get off the streets by the way…
So, again, the question: Why is Jay on the streets? Can’t I help him? If not my responsibility, then whose?
What I wonder more than anything else is this: Who else is out there trying to help our brothers, fathers, mothers and sisters, get off the streets? Addiction has been criminalized in this country. Mental illness stigmatized. We are nothing if not industrious and self-reliant (Hamilton-mania anyone?) Jay isn’t young, but he is scrappy and hungry, that’s for sure.
I don’t let myself think about how he eats everyday or where he sleeps. I cry often when I pass the homeless men and women living in tents under the viaduct less than three blocks from my home in Chicago. I can’t be the only one in this situation.
What do you do for your family members? How can we help them lead lives of dignity? How can we keep them safe? I’ve long given up on happiness or productivity for Jay. I’ve long since abandoned the thought of contribution on his part. But dignity: Isn’t that a basic human right?
I am ashamed because I don’t have an answer. I am ashamed because I can’t do more. I am ashamed because when I say the state should intervene, people assume I am a freeloader. I am ashamed because life wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. But it did. So now what?