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Howard Lipin/<em>The San Diego Union-Tribune</em> via AP

HUD Secretary Ben Carson participates in a roundtable discussion at Stella apartment homes in San Diego, Calif. (Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Sophia's World

No simple solutions

The problem of homelessness involves much more than a lack of housing

Last week, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson came to my city to discuss Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis with Mayor Eric Garcetti. While in L.A., Carson bussed down to South L.A. to visit an accessory dwelling unit (secondary housing in a single-family unit’s backyard) as one possible solution. The Trump administration has criticized California for having excessive red tape that makes it harder to develop new housing but hasn’t offered many strategies to address California’s housing and homeless crisis other than to remove regulatory barriers. 

Carson is not wrong about the cumbersome regulations—and it’s something many California politicians are working on—but to get a clearer understanding of why it’s so hard to solve homelessness, it would also be worth the secretary’s time to sit with a street outreach team and observe the cases they deal with on a regular basis. 

That’s what I did one morning. I visited the Echo Park branch of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles (HHCLA), a nonprofit clinic that treats the most impoverished population in L.A., to join a medical outreach team comprised of a physician and two nurses. Because of patient confidentiality laws, I can’t provide the names of the patients, but here are three typical cases that show why helping the homeless involves more than offering them shelter, treatment, or housing. 

Let’s start with an elderly woman, whom I’ll call April. April has a bad injury on her leg. It’s so bad that the flesh is stripped off, leaving a red, infected gash. The infection has seeped into her leg and is now dissolving her bones. The last time she agreed to see a doctor, the doctor said she needed surgery soon or she would lose that leg. 

The infection is getting worse and worse, but April still has not been admitted into a hospital for surgery. Partly, it’s because many specialized surgeons in the area don’t take Medi-Cal and thus refuse to operate on her. But mostly, it’s because April herself has refused to go. She says she’s unwilling to leave her belongings. 

That’s something many people don’t realize about chronically homeless folks: The stuff they have piled high on a cart that they push around all day? Those things may look like stinky, rotting junk to you, but to them, it’s their entire economy. It’s their life. April’s case is complicated by her undiagnosed mental illness. She picks up random stuff from the streets to hoard, and they’ve become as valuable to her as high-priced items are to a collector. Something in her mind finds enough security and comfort from these seemingly worthless belongings that she’d rather hobble in pain than give them up. 

Over the last few weeks, the outreach team went to visit her regularly, trying to convince her to go to the hospital. It almost worked twice— the pain was so excruciating that April let the nurses accompany her to the ER. But the wait at the ER takes as long as 12 hours, and during that time, the woman began worrying about her belongings, and so left. The nurses can’t force her to stay, so they let her go and tried again the next day. 

The physician suggested giving April some psychiatric medicine, which might alleviate her hoarding symptoms. Legally, they cannot force her to take medication against her will unless she’s a danger to herself and others or is gravely disabled. April’s injury and lack of housing do not make her gravely disabled under state law. She is willing to take medication, but few people living on the streets are capable of taking medication consistently and regularly. Without constant monitoring, many of them lose their medication or completely forget about it.

The day I visited the outreach team, April finally seemed ready to go to the hospital. The nurses recommended that she divide her belongings into three categories: One pile for “must haves,” another for “maybes,” and the other for “throw outs.” She agreed to do it, because she said she couldn’t bear the pain anymore.

The outreach team hurrahed, but as soon as they got together to discuss the situation, they scrunched their eyebrows with worry: Now, where were they going to put her belongings while she’s in surgery? April has two carts packed with things, and it was highly unlikely that she would be willing to part with more than half of those things. And after her discharge, where will she go? After working so hard to convince patients to seek treatment, the outreach team now has to scramble to make that happen, and it’s not easy. 

“That’s the hardest thing about this,” one nurse sighed. “She’s finally willing to go to the hospital, and we need to strike while the iron’s hot, but we can’t just snap our fingers and make it happen for her.” 

The nurse calls a program in L.A. that helps with housing, employment, education, and mental health services to the homeless. They say they may be able to get her a motel voucher to store her belongings, but it could take a week to get one. Unfortunately, April doesn’t have much time. She might have a flash of rationality to seek treatment now, but in a week she might lose that resolve. Worse, if she waits any longer, the doctors would have to amputate her leg, or she might become really sick from the infection. 

Later, the team talks about another patient. Let’s call him Adam. Adam also has a mental illness. He has delusions that cause him to wrap wire around himself to “protect” himself from outside forces. Those wires cut deep into his skin and are very painful and potentially dangerous. Adam has a housing voucher, but housing won’t do him much good when he’s constantly psychotic and refuses to take medication for his mental illness. Again, doctors cannot legally force medication on him unless he meets specific criteria for involuntary treatment—and even with his delusions, Adam is well-versed enough about his “civil rights” to insist on living his life the way he wants to live it. 

One more case: an old woman who sits at the bus stop all day, wrapped in layers of coats and sleeping bags. People can’t tell if she’s blind, but she wears thick sunglasses and crumples newspaper between her eyes and the glasses. Passers-by became concerned—a heavily bundled old woman sitting exposed to the blazing sun for hours could suffer from heat stroke. So they called the police, but when the police tried to take her to the hospital, she flipped out. “You have no right to take me!” she screamed. “I have rights! I know my rights! You have no right!” The police officers stepped away, knowing how it looks to the public for a poor old lady to be screaming about her rights at the cops in L.A. 

The physician turned to look at me: “See? Not so easy as it seems, huh? So many barriers!” 

Multiply these cases by hundreds and thousands. Currently, California has more 150,000 people experiencing homelessness. Officially, about one-third of them suffer from a mental illness, but people who deal with the homeless on the streets tell me the percentage of those with mental illness is much higher. 

That’s why even as I get frustrated with my state and local leaders for not solving the homeless crisis quickly enough, when I look at how homelessness looks like on street level, I get it: It’s not easy. It will never be easy. If there’s one thing I learned from reporting on homelessness, it’s this: Fellow citizens, be wary of anyone who tries to present simple solutions to this mind-numbingly complex issue, because there is none.

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Robert Alexander / Getty Images

(Robert Alexander / Getty Images)

Sophia's World

Losing a friend

I didn’t set healthy boundaries with Joseph, a man who had lived his life in a climate of abuse, manipulation, and dysfunction

I had a friend, whom I shall call Joseph. I say “had” because we are no longer friends. Our friendship fell apart about a week before Thanksgiving, after I had invited him to celebrate Thanksgiving with me and some friends. 

A little background history on Joseph: Joseph is a crack addict who had been homeless for 36 years. He slept on cardboard mattresses in Skid Row, and sang for food and drugs. In a way, Joseph didn’t have many chances in life: He was born to an addict, raised by an addict, stuck with addicts. When I met him, he was on a rocky path towards sobriety, and later, we celebrated his one-year sober-anniversary together with chocolate cake and candles. Though I had at first met him as a journalist for an interview, I enjoyed him as a person—his humor, his wisdom, his uproarious laughter, his enthusiasm to use his new life for good—and we became friends. 

We never got the chance to celebrate his second sober-anniversary, because several months after the first celebration, he called and said he had relapsed. He promised he would check into a rehab facility and said he was in contact with a local service provider who would connect him to various services, including housing. Our communication then became sporadic, with him messaging me or my fiancé whenever he needed some kind of help—usually petty cash for food or gas money. He always promised to pay us back but never did. 

I finally told Joseph I was uncomfortable giving him money anymore, so he changed his requests to food. He would ask for very specific things—a large Meat Lovers pizza with Pepsi and wings and triple-chocolate brownies from Pizza Hut, for instance—and ask them to be delivered to a certain address, wherever he was staying at the time, usually in his van. I knew he was struggling and had no income at the time, so I did it for him, but I struggled internally over what was the right thing to do: Shouldn’t I as a good Christian neighbor feed the hungry? Yet how do I trust an addict? How do I know I’m not just enabling his addiction? 

For a while, Joseph dropped out of communication. When I texted him, he never responded. Then one day, out of the blue, I received a Facebook message from him saying he had a new phone number. He was doing well, he told me. He found low-income housing at a neighborhood by Los Angeles. He said he was going to support group meetings several times a week and taking classes in drug counseling. He asked if we could do a movie night with my fiancé again, as we used to do before he relapsed. 

I was happy that Joseph seemed to be getting back on track—until he sent me a panicked message saying he was at risk of losing his first apartment ever, because he was short $75 in rent. He sent me pictures of his three-day notice and invoice from his landlord as proof. “Sophia, I am sorry. But I need help bad,” he said.

What was I to do? “We can’t keep bailing him out,” my fiancé told me. “He already owes me more than $100 that he never paid back.” 

“But the guy is about to be homeless again!” I exclaimed. 

Somehow, I felt like the burden of Joseph being housed or homeless fell entirely on me. I knew Joseph didn’t have much of a family or social support network, and I knew I had enough resources to help. I simply didn’t know how to say no, so I sent him $75 after making him promise he would pay me back. It wasn’t just about the money—I wanted him to be financially responsible, especially because I knew by that point he had some income from social security checks, and that a nonprofit was already helping him with his rent. 

I was pleasantly surprised when Joseph did pay me back after he got his next paycheck. It made me trust him a little more. Then he asked for money again. He needed food, he said. I sent him money. This time, he didn’t pay it back. 

Come Thanksgiving, I remembered Joseph and wondered what he was doing for Thanksgiving. He told me he was spending Thanksgiving alone, so I invited him to spend Thanksgiving with us. 

“Ooh, I gotta go to Goodwill and buy something nice to get dolled up!” he exclaimed, making me laugh. He talked about his grandmother’s candied yams, his longing for collard greens and pumpkin pie. He sounded excited.

Then he asked me to pay for his food again, this time a bucket of fried chicken. He had already chosen what he wanted on Postmates, and he wanted me to pay the $25 for it. There was nothing in his house, but he would have money the next day and would pay me back then, he promised. 

I felt a dead weight in my gut. I just didn’t feel right about it. We needed to set some kind of boundaries. So I told him, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can keep giving you money or paying for food anymore. I just think it’s not healthy for our friendship to have so many money loans involved. It gets messy and I can’t keep doing that for you, and it’s not good for you to have us as a safety net like that. I hope you understand.”

I could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Oh. OK, I understand, Sophia,” he said, and we hung up on what I thought was friendly terms.

Several minutes later, I received an essay-long text from him. He told me he was going to have to go back out on the streets to sing for money. He said when he relapsed, all his “so-called friends” who called themselves Christians dropped him, when friends are supposed to “build each other up.” He quoted Scriptures saying liars don’t make it to the kingdom of heaven, that Jesus called us to forgive our brothers seventy times seven times. He then disinvited himself from Thanksgiving dinner and said he hoped never to hear from me or my fiancé ever again. His last text to me: “God bless you because with friends like you guys, don’t need enemies, got enough of those.” 

I cried. The whole incident deeply upset me, not just because I lost someone I called a friend, but because I couldn’t help feeling guilt—guilt that perhaps I wasn’t a good Christian, a good friend, that I wasn’t empathetic or compassionate enough to his situation. I also felt hurt: After all that my fiancé and I did for him, how could he treat us this way?

My fiancé told me I did the right thing: “Notice that the one time you say no to him, he lashes out. I think that reveals a lot. You can’t help everybody.” 

Honestly, it took several weeks for me to get over it. But it was good, because it made me seriously pray and process through what happened and reevaluate my relationship with Joseph. The Bible is very clear about being openhanded to the poor, about carrying each other’s burdens, to give to those who ask, to sell our possessions and give to the poor, etc. But it also talks a lot about wisdom—and I wonder whether I could have acted with more wisdom in terms of setting healthy boundaries with someone whom I knew struggled with addiction and a history of abuse, manipulation, and dysfunction.

Loving and caring for someone who is as complex as Joseph is just as complex and messy. I wish there was a booklet that lays out exact steps on how best to care for a person according to his unique personality and situation and backstory. No such perfect guide exists, but I do have the Bible and the Spirit in me to guide and correct and encourage me through situations such as this. In the meantime, thank God, for His grace is sufficient for us.

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Sophia's World

Meeting Grandpa Willis

A trip to my fiancé’s hometown left us with hearts swollen and tender

I spent Christmas week visiting my fiancé David’s hometown in Bismarck, N.D. His parents had requested that we visit them there this Christmas, because David’s 96-year-old grandfather Willis recently had a stroke and we suspected he might not be around for next Christmas. 

There in snowy Bismarck, David and I visited Grandpa Willis several times at the skilled nursing facility where he now lives. I could tell David had a hard time seeing his once-strong, vibrant grandfather basically bed-ridden, his right hand useless and stiff from the stroke. This man has been a well-revered Baptist pastor for many, many decades, and even now he still serves as pastor emeritus at his church, still tunes in online every Sunday for service, still reads theological books for leisure. In many ways, he reminded me of my own father, and my heart warmed to this humble, dedicated man who fears and loves the Lord.

On our last day in Bismarck, we visited Grandpa Willis again right before we left for the airport. Knowing it might be the last time he saw either of us, Grandpa had obviously thought carefully over what he wanted to say to us. When we entered his room, he was bright-eyed and clear-minded, sitting upright in his armchair, dressed in the red plaid button-down shirt David’s parents had gifted him for Christmas.

The moment we sat down, Grandpa got down to business. He turned to me and asked, “Who’s the leader in your marriage—David or you?” 

“David,” I said automatically. I was a pastor’s kid who grew up in the church and was thoroughly schooled in orthodox theology. I knew what the right answer was.

Grandpa smiled: “You responded really fast.”

I thought it over, and edited my answer: “Well, I know the husband is the head of the house. But I think it will be a challenge for me.” 

Grandpa nodded. “Good, as long as you’re aware of that.” Then he turned to David: “How are you going to lead your family?” 

“Um,” David said. “I’m learning to trust in God.” 

Grandpa looked at him for a moment and then shook his head: “That’s not specific enough.” He then said, “If there’s something I wish I had done differently in my marriage, it’s that I don’t get so busy with my ministry work. I remember Ruth (his wife, now deceased) telling me, ‘Willis, I wish you’d call me honey more often.’” Grandpa turned to David: “Remember to show affection to your wife. And for me, no matter how busy I was, I still always made it home for dinner.”

I had expected Grandpa Willis to say something super theological, like quoting Ephesians 5:22-33 or 1 Timothy 2:8-3:13—so it was a nice surprise to hear him share something so practical and personal. Yet what he said was fully Biblical too—to be a good leader of the household is to be loving and self-sacrificial, as the Bible commands husbands to be, and that can be as simple as calling the wife “Honey” and showing up for dinner regardless of the workload. 

Later, I got a better picture of what kind of marriage Grandpa Willis shared with Grandma Ruth, who died 10 years ago from congestive heart failure. Grandma Ruth spent the last weeks of her life in the same healthcare facility Grandpa is currently in, and at the time, Grandpa was living in a senior community housing right across the field from the facility. It was so close that every morning, Grandma Ruth would sit in her chair looking outside her window, waiting to spot Grandpa walk out of the house, lock the door, and trudge towards her. 

“Quick!” she would exclaim to her daughter or anyone who was with her at the time, “Grab my lipstick!” By the time Grandpa reached her room, she would be ready with bright red lips puckered to greet him with a smooch. And every day, all day, Grandpa Willis would sit by her side and not leave until nighttime, even during the last days of her life when she was barely conscious. 

As Grandpa Willis reminisced on those final days, his face scrunched up and he began wailing. It was the kind of moaning and weeping that spills out from a fresh wound. I was so taken aback by his sobs that I sat frozen for a few seconds, and then hot tears stung my own eyes. I looked up at David, and his eyes had watered up too, even though he’s the kind of guy who rarely cries. 

Ten years had passed since his wife died, but Grandpa still wore his wedding ring, still hung a picture of them by his bed, still referred to Ruth as his wife. He misses her every day. He longs for the moment when he goes back to his heavenly home and sees her again. What a marriage!

David and I both left that afternoon with hearts swollen and tender with inexpressible emotions. In preparation for marriage, I had been reading a bunch of books on marriage, knowing life as I know it as a happily single woman will be shaken apart. My generation is not ignorant to the fact that the majority of marriages seem to end in pain, divorce, and dysfunction. I’ve witnessed a few engagements break off because of family trauma and fear of marriage. One marriage counselor even described marriage, quite seriously, as “a living hell.” 

Yet no human relationship is greater or more important than marriage, the marriage books remind me. The Bible begins and ends with marriage. God chose marriage to reflect the gospel, so we can experience the transforming love of God for us. Just as Jesus died on the cross and gave Himself up for us, so we are to die to our own needs and interests and serve one another in marriage. That’s heavy. Kinda scary. Extremely intimidating. Can we really do this? Can I do this?

The more I read, the more I doubted if I’m truly up for this mysterious thing called marriage. I’d never been so-called “wife material”—I’m too independent, too stubborn, too selfish, too easily bored, too impatient to give and commit wholly and self-sacrificially to another man who, honestly, sometimes makes me want to smack him. What if I find him more annoying than lovely? Or he me?

Before we said goodbye to Grandpa, I had asked him for his favorite Scripture. He quoted Psalm 34 by heart: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.”

There’s more to Psalm 34. David and I read it together at the airport. Nothing about that psalm spoke directly about marriage, yet everything about it did. When I first met David, Psalm 42 (“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”) had been my favorite, and it had been his too. Now we have a new favorite psalm, one that I hope we remind each other often: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!”

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