Derelicts And Paranoid Schizophrenics: A Backdrop To The City

A recurring problem for the police, though not a critical problem, are the homeless, as we now call derelicts and the mad people of the city. They form a backdrop to a cop’s world in parts of the cities — always there, often a nuisance, more a danger to themselves than to others. Society refuses to do anything about them, so presumably they will be there at the turn of the next millenium.

There was a woman in Washington who thought she was the target of countless rapists. She frequently called the cops to report that one was in her back room. They looked, reassured her, and left. Scrawlings on her walls warned the malefactors to leave. She was a schizophrenic but left to live on disability in constant fear of nonexistent assailant.

What do the cops do about such people? The law says that you can’t arrest them unless they pose a danger to themselves or others, or commit crimes. She didn’t. Most don’t, at least most of the time. She was just loony. But-should the crazy be left to wander the alleys, often not taking care of themselves, sleeping who knows where? To me, it doesn’t seem real civilized.

The crunch comes in bad weather. Sure, lots of the homeless aren’t, and have places to go, and in need will even go to the shelters. But the mad sometimes don’t. They end up frozen to death. Sometimes the trick is to find an excuse to arrest them so they won’t die.

According to the police, a woman in Bethesda who thought she worked for the trash police finally found a telephone lineman working up a pole, decided to help him, took a spare pair of climbers out of his truck, and tried to come up the pole. This was dangerous. They arrested her. But she probably ended up back on the street before long. There’s really no place to put them.

In Chinatown I ran across a fellow who wore what I remember as looking like a biker’s Nazi helmet from World War II. The cop I was with said the guy had hurt his head in the past, and now refused to take the helmet off. He wasn’t a Nazi, just worried about his head.

Some of these folks have been around for ages. There’s a woman often seen in Georgetown who sits among signs she has made. They say the sorts of disconnected things that books describe as characteristic of schizophrenia: “Jimmy Hoffa: the end of things. Congress knows.” I don’t know where she lives, but she looks fairly well kept and so probably doesn’t live in abandoned buildings. A cop in Washington told me about a veteran who had well over a thousand a month, whether in retired or disability pay I don’t remember. He chose to live on the streets.

By no means all of the homeless are insane. Some are people who somehow got down on their luck, and never got it back together. The cops in LA once told me about a guy who had been a stock broker of some sort. He took the divorce hard. When his ex remarried and went away with the kids he just lost it, turned into a drunk, got fired, and drifted downward until he ended up under a bench. You can ask why he didn’t do this or that to get back on his feet. He apparently just didn’t care any longer.

The insane can fool you. At Court House in Arlington a cop and I answered a call from a homeless guy who had seen some act of vandalism and called 911. The call was legit. The guy looked to be perhaps from India, spoke educated English, and was clearly intelligent. Afterward I said that he didn’t seem plausible as a derelict. The cop said that, yeah, lots of times they appear absolutely together and you wonder why they’re on the street. Then they start talking about the transmitters the CIA planted in their teeth.

To me the question is what we ought to do about these people. Somehow, leaving the insane and the uncontrollably drunk to decay on the streets, until they freeze or the liver quits in some empty lot, just doesn’t seem right. Do you round up the psychotic and put them in asylums? It would be the decent thing to do. We won’t. But if they, or the drunks, don’t want to be rounded up? Arguably it’s their choice. Cops just live with it.

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