Mention Miami this week and the first thing people will talk about is the "zombie" attack. What they are obviously referring to is the gruesome near-killing of Ronald Poppo by Rudy Eugene, who was shot by the police after virtually devouring 75 percent of Poppo's face. The Police are blaming it on a synthetic drug called "bath salts," while the Twitterverse is blaming it on a looming zombie apocalypse. But once you finish with the jokes, look into the lives of both men and dig deeper into the city they call(ed) home, some stuff just stops being funny and starts being sad. Even the "only in Miami" assumptions about the attack fall flat. As I write this, I just got word of another flesh-eating homicide in Maryland.
But the sensationalism and the sick jokes do make sense. It is easier to stock up on supplies and firearms (which Miamians really don't need any help doing) while preparing for a zombie apocalypse like the ones in the movies (I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, one of those bad M. Night Shyamalan flicks), than it is to really look at what would make a man like Rudy Eugene, who friends have called "funny" and "a really nice guy," do the things he did to Ronald Poppo, a man who has spent the better part of 30 years homeless (in spite of attending an elite New York high school). It is also easier than admitting that there were plenty of warning signs in Eugene's life indicating that he needed help. Unfortunately for him, those warning signs went off in a city where the early warning systems and institutions are constantly crumbling.
But this wasn't the first or last gruesome attack and Miami wasn't the first and won't be the last city a gruesome attack takes place in. Many followers of Hip Hop before it went Pop will remember when up-and-coming Cali-based artist Big Lurch was put in prison for a PCP-induced murder of his 21-year-old roommate in 2002. He tore out her insides and apparently devoured them before being arrested walking down the street naked and screaming into the sky. Just last month, a Shrewsbury, Massachusetts man suffering from dementia was involved in a horrific killing/cannibalization of his wife. If we step away from the gory and sensational and just talk about the disturbing, we can find a weekly story of a domestic violence-related homicide or a foreclosure-induced murder/suicide of an entire family. Similarly, once we step away from the "zombie" meme, look at what caused these other attacks and compare it to Eugene's near-killing of Poppo, we start to see a lot of similarities.
Yes, Eugene's friends and family have very little bad to say about him, but he also allegedly threatened to kill his mother during a 2004 domestic incident in her house. Even though he worked at a carwash and wanted to start his own business, he may have also lost his home to foreclosure in 2011. His girlfriend of six years called him a sweet and well-mannered man with no history of violence and who rarely left home without a bible in his hand, but his ex-wife says she left him because he became increasingly violent toward her. His friends found him funny and religious but claimed that he had recently been "battling a devil." And even though he wasn't known to have a history of serious drug use, he was known to smoke marijuana a lot and was trying to stop. Although the speculative public, police and message boards have yet to see a toxicology report, there are too many similarities between Eugene's flesh eating attack on Poppo and other drug-induced homicides like the one Big Lurch had perpetrated in 2002 to rule out that Eugene my have been on drugs that day.
Nevertheless, it is still hard for almost anyone to believe that Rudy Eugene, a man who told his friends he wanted to get his life right and get "closer to God," woke up last Saturday and made a conscious decision to maim, kill or devour anyone's flesh. Which is why it is easier to blame it on bath salts and zombie apocalypses, until you realize that if you are trying to "get your life right" or "battle devils," Miami has become a hard city to do that in.
On my show on Wednesday, Kamalah Fletcher from Catalyst Miami laid out the declining mental health and substance abuse infrastructure of Miami and Florida as a whole. Just consider that:
-Florida is the second to worst state in the country when it comes to funding mental health services. Of the 325,000 people with persistent and severe mental illness, only 42 percent receive treatment.
-In 2010, the State Legislature cut adult community mental health funding, children's mental health funding and adult substance abuse services by more than $18 million. This year, the state legislature tried to make Florida the worst state in the nation at funding mental health, and almost succeeded.
-Prescription drug overdoses and the prescription drug death rate are up in Florida by 61 percent and 84 percent respectively. That didn't stop state politicians from trying to cut funding for drug treatment by 20 percent, which would have kicked 37,000 people out of services while they were trying to kick a habit.
- First responders across the state say that they are seeing mental health cases that they have never seen before, such as a Palm Beach man that was held in custody 50 times in one year under the state's Baker Act because he was a threat to himself and others.
But it is still easier to demand the death penalty for "bath salt" possession than it is to talk about a real need for services. After all, wanting to detect and address early warning signs of potentially destructive behavior makes you a "bleeding heart" liberal. Cracking jokes about bleeding hearts and eaten flesh while doing nothing just makes you normal.
As a trained social worker and former community organizer, I have no illusions that even the best services will stop every destructive act caused by a mental illness or substance abuse problems. I also have no illusions that every penny spent on service agencies will be used wisely. But in a state that paid tens of millions of dollars in welfare money to sports stadiums like the Miami Heat Arena on the condition that they shelter the homeless on off-nights (something they never did), I have more faith that our community mental health centers will help the mentally ill than I do that the Miami Heat will house the homeless.
I also realize that we still don't have all the details, facts or medical reports to really understand why Rudy Eugene did what he did last Saturday. But if the police can speculate about "bath salts," and bloggers can speculate about a "zombie apocalypse," I don't see why I can't speculate about a real documented apocalyptic public health crisis in our state.
Don't forget to tune into our show every Wednesday.