Thursday, December 18, 2008

How do you want to die?

Death is inevitable. All of us die, in the end. The question is, what kind of death do you want? A death in a warm bed at home, surrounded by family and friends? A death in a cold, impersonal hospital bed? Burial in the family plot next to your father and mother and grandmother? Or dead of exposure on the streets with no known relatives or friends, to be later cremated and buried in an anonymous grave?

They were single and married, young and old, from San Jose and parts unknown. What tied them together is how they died: cold and alone on the streets of Silicon Valley, their lives now statistics, their stories never told. There were 55 of them, men and women as young as 18, as old as 76, all homeless people who died this year — more than ever before in Santa Clara County, according to the coroner's office. Forty-one people died on county streets — in a park, on a bench or tucked beneath a freeway overpass — last year.

And I notice that, once again, these human beings are as nameless in death as they were in life. I pointed this out last year that the Mercury News is not willing to give these poor souls even the minimal recognition that EHC Lifebuilders gives them by naming their names. Once again the Mercury News shows that the shame of the Silicon Valley is the shame of the Mercury News too -- rather than show us these people, they would prefer to hide them and pretend they don't exist except as a meaningless statistic, paper cutouts, not real people with names, people like you and me.

And why anybody should die shivering on the streets when we have literally thousands of empty office buildings and warehouse buildings all over this county any one of which could sleep literally thousands of people... well, nobody asks that question. We are the richest city in the richest state in the richest planet of this nation. We have the capability to make sure these people don't have to shiver in the dark and die alone under an overpass. What we lack is the will. Shame on us all.

-- Badtux the Housed Penguin


  1. Powerful, stunning post. AMerica has largely become a nations of Cheney's "So?"

  2. I agree with you that America should do better, Tux, but homeless people are often hard to help. When I worked at St. Mary's Medical Center, we got a lot of street people as patients, because the hospital was next to the confluence of Golden Gate Park and Haight Street. A homeless hotspot.

    When they're chronically drunk, addicted to hard drugs and/or mentally ill, most don't cooperate with treatment. They won't wash themselves, or let nurses do it. When we try to change the dressings on their oozing wounds (one of the things that makes homeless people ask for medical help is when their legs get so rotten that they can't walk) they fight us because it's painful. They yell and curse at the staff, whinge constantly for narcotics, and as soon as they're well enough to walk, they bolt. Not all of 'em, but a majority are that way.

    That's the hospital side of why the homeless are often found dead in the weeds. They're sick in the body and mind, but even the ones who are lucky enough to get inside the uncaring medical system fight the cure.

    It's got to be as difficult with the few who get into the homeless shelter system. Do you read the S.F. Chronicle? In 2005, not long before I left, they had a good series about life in the shelters. Pure hell, mate. Many take their chances instead of using the inadequate help that's there.

    And as difficult as these people are, if you gave each one a fully furnished apartment, that wouldn't work either. You've written about your problem neighbours. Suppose they were insane speed freaks without even the money to pay rent? Can you imagine the screaming fights, the fires when they fell asleep with lit cigarettes, the thievery and vandalism and trashing of homes even if they got given them?

    Australia's a bit better with its public housing and social service system. But there are hard cases here, too. We had one patient recently, 50ish guy at the end of Woodie Guthrie's disease, who had been sent over from a local hostel. He was as emaciated as a concentration camp inmate. The staff there said they had a bed for him, but he preferred to wander outside and sleep on the ground. Nurses, including me, tried to spoon-feed the guy, but he wouldn't eat. In his lucid moments, he could answer questions and have simple conversations. After a week, the doctors decided there was no helping him, and we sent him back to the hostel. He died of starvation, outside, within the week.

    I don't know what to do with the homeless. America certainly doesn't do enough. But there are some sad people for whom nothing would be enough.

  3. damn, what a post. we must do something to make this horrible waste useful to those in need, Kudos to the writer of this piece. As always, I remain KOUNTMEIN

  4. Bukko, I would agree more with you if all available shelters were not filled to the brim every night during these cold spells, with homeless people being turned away from their doors for lack of space.

    Regarding the homeless mentally ill, we used to have a system that could take care of people whose mental illnesses prevent them from taking care of themselves. But Governor Ronald Reagan dismantled it in 1967 with the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS), then the ACLU and other do-gooder organizations finished the job in the late 70's with a series of lawsuits that prohibited institutions from medicating patients who refused medication unless said medication was necessary in order to preserve their life. So it was a combination of skinflints and do-gooders that basically puts the homeless mentally ill upon the streets. Which still doesn't make it right.

    - Badtux the Housed Penguin

  5. I don't really give a crap how I die, as long as it isn't to long prolonged and painful.

  6. I witnessed what you mean about the Reagan deregulation, Tux.

    When I was still a newspaper reporter for the Tampa Tribune in the late 80s, I was based in the town of Arcadia, a redneck burg in the palmetto swamps and orange groves of central Florida. One of the area's economic engines was a 1,200-bed state mental hospital named G. Pierce Wood. It was your typical Bedlam warehouse for the odd ends of society. There was a crusading group that was challenging the place for doing nothing to help the patients, over-medicating them, all the ills of which you speak.

    The group sued in federal court to get better treatment in community centres, not this giant semi-prison that was 50 miles from anywhere. I wrote a lot of favourable stories about their effort. I believed their rhetoric that smaller, more-focused group homes would be a better way. The Reagan administration acted as though it was resisting, but the advocacy group won. The mental hospital has now been shuttered, but the community treatment centres never materialised. So most of those patients are either in nursing homes or dead in the weeds.

    After I became a nurse, I worked at one small mental health home in Punta Gorda that housed 30 ex-patients, but it was just a drop in the bucket compared to the total population of the big hospital. Looking back, I think it was a Potemkin project to show "Look, we're doing something!" And I wonder whether the Reagan admin's show of resisting the advocacy group lawsuit was just a "Please don't throw me in the Briar Patch" sorta thing. In my more paranoid moments, I wonder whether the "advocacy group" (which seemed to be well-funded for a non-profit do-gooder bunch) was a false front to let the Reaganites push what they wanted under the guise of "reformers." But that's through-the-Looking-Glass stuff.

  7. you really hit another here........ when it comes to the homeless it is head in the sand...... even when the die


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