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Across the River


We live in Chicago, downtown, on the river. I have spent the weekend noticing a young man, probably in his early 20s, pacing the riverwalk on the opposite bank. Sometimes it looks like he’s playing basketball. Sometimes it looks like he’s swatting something at his knees. All times he looks like he is not living the same reality the majority of us are.


It’s hot today. He must be hungry. He’s got to be thirsty. I passed him twice yesterday, on the way to the gym and back. The first time, I noticed him looking disheveled and out of sorts. The second time, he walked toward me with his hand shoved into his pants and a blue pacifier in his mouth. Neither time did my presence register to him whatsoever.


As I have observed him from the distance the past two days, he bothers no one. He keeps to himself. The way he keeps to himself can sometimes look aggressive, especially with the air swatting. But people walk past him, joggers go by, the car wash workers take their smoke breaks along side him, dogs and their owners pass without incident.


Like I said it’s hot today. He also looks to be in need of mental health treatment, a shower, a regimen of antipsychotics, a place to live, clean clothing, water. I called NAMI Chicago for advice.


NAMI is a National non-profit organization with chapters around the country dedicated toward supporting those who suffer from mental health conditions and their families. Surely, they would have protocol or advice on how to help this young man. Their advice was the same advice as it always has been in mental health care, call 911 and ask for a CIT officer. CIT stands for Crisis Intervention Team. This a group of officers specially trained to deal with a mental health crisis.


Due to his mental health status, it’s possible he becomes aggressive when an officer approaches him. It’s possible the wrestle him to the ground and handcuff him. Depending upon how that transpired, maybe they take him to jail instead of the hospital.


Chicago’s Cook County Jail is considered the largest mental health treatment center in the United States. So maybe jail and treatment are one in the same. That sounds terrible. And he’s not hurting anyone. And the risk is too high that he would resist the officers. And then he’s spending the night, and maybe more, on a metal bed in a windowless cell. Or, maybe something even worse happens. How many calls about Black men and people in a mental health crisis end with the subject dead? On the other hand, he could simply stay outside, minding his own business, and enjoy the beautiful weather we’re having this Sunday afternoon.


The truth of the matter is that this young man obviously needs mental health support, and there is a risk that he gets harmed and traumatized in the process of trying to give him the support.


I talked with my husband about it, and we agreed to get him a plate of leftover chicken, some rolls, and water. My husband would bring it to him, and on the way, speak with the businesses on that bank of the river - the kayak company and the car wash.


So I prepare the plate and walk with my husband across the bridge to the other bank. He tells me to let him go ahead, and I go home.


When I make it home, I can see my husband across the river leaving a conversation with the kayak company, donning his mask, putting on some gloves, and heading over to the young man. I am hoping for a good outcome.


From the distance, I see my husband set down the food right next to the you’re man, point to it, and then ask one of the car wash workers to come over. My husband’s back is to the young man, and I am wishing my husband didn’t fully turn his back. After a brief conversation with the car wash attendant, my husband turns to leave.


I rush out of my house to meet my husband. I peek through the landscaping on our side of the river and see the young man downing the cup of water I gave him. “Good,” I thought. I leave our neighborhood and meet my husband on the bridge.


He says the kayak people occasionally give him water as well. One day this summer when it was scorching hot, they called an ambulance due to dehydration. But the young man refused help. The car wash people said he doesn’t bother them.


This set my decision. I’m not calling the cops. He’s not a danger at the moment, let him enjoy the day and the food. My husband said when he set the food down and said, ”For you,” the young man gobbled up the rolls.


Now what to do? Should we set some food out there for him everyday? Should we give him some new clothes? Would he wipe himself down with a wet washcloth if I gave him one?


Do I leave him alone? Do I find an organization to take him in? Surely, the police can’t be his only option.


Mental health treatment in our society, our culture, our nation, this city, my neighborhood needs more work. We can do better, and I want to find out how.

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