We’d asked him to leave a few times, given a 15-minute warning, a 5-minute warning, and finally a we-are-actually-closed-now-please-leave warning. He wasn’t going. I left the room for a moment and when I came back, he was in the cleaning closet, facing the wall.
“Come on, Charlie,” Margo said as she gently grabbed his arm and steered him out of the closet. She guided him, stumbling, out the door. I followed, carrying his jacket and scarf, which had fallen to the floor. Ryan was on the phone, “No, no, we don’t need you anymore. Looks like he is leaving.”
We try not to call the cops on our Network folks, but if a client is clearly and possibly dangerously under the influence of alcohol or drugs, is violent or using violent language, or refuses to leave after being asked and warned, sometimes we have no other choice. This is never to get one of our folks in trouble. It is a last-resort when we have no other options.
We walked Charlie outside and kept checking to see if he was okay. I wasn’t sure what, but he was clearly on something and long-gone. I tried to give him back his stuff. I wasn’t sure he could keep ahold if it, his arms didn’t seem capable of grasping the bundle. His eyes wide open were only half visible from under the black beanie pulled down low, and they didn’t seem to really be registering what was in front of him.
He stumbled off, veering and tripping down the sidewalk. He didn’t seem okay. I felt worried. I watched for a moment, and was about to turn back inside when I saw him stumble while crossing the street. He pitched forward, falling headlong across the white lines marking the crosswalk. He didn’t move.
I froze for a second, then sprinted over to him with a sense of panic. He was lying on his back, feet on the ground and knees bent to face upward, eyes open wide and unmoving. I tried to grab his hand, but it was limp, he wouldn’t grab on so I could help him up.
It was like he wasn’t there, just a wide-eyed body with no mind operating it.
I’ve quite possibly never felt so helpless in my life. Laying in the middle of the road, he was clearly in danger, and I could not lift him out of the way. I thought maybe he'd had a seizure, with the wide, unseeing, unmoving eyes. I hollered for someone to get Ryan and then Brad came over to help Charlie to his feet. I again gathered all his fallen things and we walked him over to a building where we could prop him against the wall. We tried to help him sit down, but I don’t think he could. So Brad just stood here, holding him so he wouldn’t fall back down. He couldn’t even stand on his own.
We waited while Ryan called 9-1-1.
Charlie was a shell. He never looked at us, his eyes still wide and just staring off. He looked paralyzed or petrified, like I imagine a character from Harry Potter would look under a spell or enchantment. It was as though the human inside his body had disappeared.
When the fire truck finally came and the medical responders piled out, I felt oddly reluctant to leave him. I asked multiple times if he’d get to keep his things, which I was still clutching like a safety blanket. Hesitant, I finally handed them over.
My mind went to Michael Lee Marshall. My memory selected the buried image of frail Michael Lee restrained by a number of large police officers in the sheriff’s department where he later died from asphyxiation induced by the brutality of his restraint. I recalled a comment by a Network staff guy about how hard it is to call the police when sometimes our guys don’t make it out of the jail alive.
I know paramedics and fire department aren’t police, but they all have sirens and authority and I get worried and scared sometimes.
How to navigate this broken world?
Where Charlie was getting high on an aerosol can of Old Spice and there’s nothing we can do but call 9-1-1 because we aren’t trained to help someone who is overdosing. But sometimes the very ones tasked to “serve and protect” don’t because the system is so deeply riddled with racism and injustice, and you never know what could happen to in those places, especially to someone black and homeless.
How awful, to be the one who called the cops on someone who just needed help and detox and ends up dying in custody. I couldn’t live with myself.
All those thoughts raced through my mind as I tore myself away from the red and blue flashing lights and the men in navy blue shirts checking Charlie’s vitals.
What are we to do? When we aren’t equipped to help someone overdosing, mentally ill, or violently reacting to their fear or mental illness, we should be able to trust the people we call. I’ve met some really amazing people serving on the police force, like the homeless outreach officer who drove two of our folks to Network a few weeks ago because she didn't want them to have to walk such a long way when they've been sick. But in a world where policing is run by a system so deeply entrenched in systemic racism and oppression, people get churned out reflecting those systems. So what sort of cop will show up when we call, and will this homeless black man live?
I’m left unsure of where to go and what to after days like this. I want to curl up and cry in my hopelessness, I wanted to while I stood beside Charlie. Standing there with this far-gone man, this precious human being in front of me who I so wanted to help, yet all I could do was stand by and obsessively ask the paramedic if Charlie would get his things back before I surrendered them.
How to be the living room of Christ in this hurting world wrecked by racism and injustice? How to be the living room of Christ in a world that doesn’t often see our homeless folks as humans? How can I trust my friends to actually be cared for if they are viewed as dispensable nuisances?
Sometimes all I can do is cry. Submerged in an overdose of my own helplessness and weakness in moments of incredible brokenness, all I can do is speak out the one thing that’s left…