It started out as a good day. The Program Manager had called in sick, and everyone was in a upbeat mood. The PM was not well liked and any excuse for his absence, which was rare, was welcomed by the entire team. I was his second in command so it was my job that day to run the morning meeting. The team enjoyed when I ran the meeting because I had a strong connection with each and every one of them. I usually spent the last part of the meeting given them positive feedback for their work. The PM always did the opposite, shaming them for not doing things they way he wanted them done.
We were a homeless outreach team based out of Hollywood in California. Our job was to scour the streets of Hollywood to find the most vulnerable individuals in the massive homeless population. We were looking for people with serious mental illness who may or may not been addicted to drugs or alcohol, and/or suffering from debilitating chronic physical illness. These people were not hard to find. They were virtually everywhere. Our job was to enroll them in our program which worked to find them housing while providing desperately needed supportive services.
We had case managers to help them get their IDs, apply for social security, and bus cards; a housing specialist who accompanied them to the Housing Authority to fill out the endless forms for housing vouchers; a substance abuse specialist who provided them opportunities to figure out ways of reducing drug and alcohol use; a program administrator whose job it was to keep, among a thousand other duties, client files and client appointments; a psychiatrist who evaluated them for medication services; licensed vocational nurses who dispensed these medications some times directly on the street; a nurse practitioner who worked to link them to medical care; social workers who were assigned case loads of clients and were responsible for coordinating all of their care including mental health, medical, substance treatment, and housing; and there was me. I had my own case load. I was often given the most difficult clients, the ones who would not respond to others on the team. Besides taking over for the PM in his absence, it was my job to fill in where ever and whenever the PM decided he wanted me to. Perhaps most of all, I was the shield for the team. I absorbed the bulk of his ire, and this more than anything made my job very difficult.
Melody, a younger social worker, was particularly happy the PM was gone. She was a constant target of his inappropriate sarcasm, and I found myself often sitting with her to sooth her much warranted tears. “It’s like a weight is off my shoulders!” she laughed as others nodded in agreement. She began the meeting as we went around the table to report on the condition of various clients to make plans on who would be seen that day.
“B and B are at it again,” Melody shook her head. They were a tumultuous young couple who had been arrested several times on the street for fighting. “Rollin around like two feral cats.” They were also avid marijuana and meth users who had a reputation on the streets and with local businesses. There was some talk about the things that had been tried. A sense of helplessness blanketed the table, a feeling that often came with difficult cases or situations that had reached a standstill.
“Brenda, when’s the last time you meet with them?” Brenda was a spirited peer counselor who had graduated to case manager by her hard work and dedication to clients. Having been homeless herself, she had a no nonsense sensibility about her. She also had a heart of gold and would never give up on even the most challenging of people.
“I’ll give it go,” she smiled and wrote something in her notebook. She loved her affirmations, catchy little saying that gave her inspiration. She especially loved sharing them with other people. No doubt she had thought of one to give to B and B.
“Okay, who else?” I asked the table.
“Albert’s been clean for two weeks!” Bob an older social worker said. Albert was a man in his 50s who had lived most of his life on the street. He used whatever drugs he could get his hands on, but after being placed in his own studio apartment he was making a concerted effort to stop. Two weeks sober was a life time for a man who had been high for most of 50 years.
“Fantastic!” even the smallest triumph deserved recognition. “Make sure you praise him and encourage him to continue.”
“I’ll talking to him about a few meetings close to his place,” Manny the substance abuse counselor said. “Maybe I’ll even take him to one later.” It had been over a year since the team started working together. We started out with half a dozen and grown to about twelve. We worked well together, supported each other, complemented each other, trusted each other. Manny was an especially powerful team player who had a knack for stepping in when he was needed most.
“Sounds good Manny,” I agreed. “Good luck.”
“David,” a familiar voice interrupted the meeting. It was Jenna the program administration, the heart of the program, standing at the doorway with an urgent look on her face. “Phone for you. It’s Billy. Sounds important.” Billy was one of our most difficult clients. He was a small mouthy man prone to uncontrollable tantrums where he threatened any and everyone within earshot. Having been recently housed in a large apartment building, his antics had caused him a broken nose from a punch in the face as well as several broken ribs from being knocked down and mercilessly kicked. The meeting was quickly dismissed as I made my way to my desk.
“This is David,” I said into the receiver.
“Mmh suh mun tunha wah!!!” Billy’s voice was muffled and loud on the other end. I held the phone away from my ear to let him finish his rant. A minute or so later when he seemed to be done, I brought the phone back.
“You need to calm yourself down Billy, I can’t understand-“
“This fucking fucking ridiculous!” he shouted then devolved into his wordless diatribe. It went on for at least another five minutes.
“Billy, I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me,” I said in a soft even voice. “I need you to take a few deep breaths-“
“Fuck that shit!” Billy yelled. “I need you to get your ass over here NOW!! Some crazy fucker is threatening to kill me. If you don’t do something about it, I’m gonna slit my throat right now!” Then he hung up. It was clear to me I would be doing a home visit with Billy that day.
I immediately went to Jenna to get the keys to the van. Billy’s apartment was about ten miles away from the office, a trip that took nearly a half hour on the busy streets of Hollywood. Jenna handed me the keys and the mileage sheet.
“Whatever you do,” she said in a serious tone. “Don’t go alone.” Although she was not educated academically in psychology, Jenna had a lot of experience working with people with mental health problems. Over the last year, she had become my right hand. I often used her as a sounding board for my own gripes because she was reasonable and smart. Her advice was almost always dead on, and anyway she was right. We were told over and over again for good reason not to go alone to see clients especially if they were in crisis.
By this time, most everyone had left to make their own home visits. Only Brenda remained as she was checking her emails before heading out. Brenda was not my first choice for this kind of situation. She had never faced a crisis before, and although she was generally good with the clients she could sometimes become reactionary when things were volatile.
“I need you to go with me Brenda,” I told her matter-of-factly. “Billy is on a rampage, and I don’t think I should go alone.” So off Brenda and I went in the van.
About a half hour later, we pulled up to the complex. I parked on the street, and we walked around the back to knock on Billy’s door.
“Get the fuck in here!” he squealed, ushering us into his small living room.
“What’s going on Billy?” I said standing at the door way with Brenda beside me.
“You gotta calm yourself down Billy,” Brenda added. “Just talk to us and tell us what’s wrong.”
“The lady upstairs is a crazy fucking whore!” he said his hands waving about spasmodically. “I’m just minding my own business when she comes down here and starts threatening me. I don’t feel safe here, and I won’t to get the fuck out of here and move somewhere else.”
“Billy,” I tried. “If you don’t feel safe, we’ll take you to a shelter-“
“Fuck that!” he spat in my face. “I’m not going to a fucking shelter. I’m not going fucking any where.”
“If you’re feeling threatened,” Brenda said. “Then let’s call the police.”
“Fuck the police!” Billy screamed. “They just make things worse. They can go kiss my ass!!”
“Billy I need you to calm down,” I said as quietly as I could. “Have a seat on your bed and let’s-“
“No! I don’t wanna be here! I want to leave! I don’t feel safe!!”
“Okay,” I agreed. “Let’s get you to a hotel for a few days so we can figure things out.”
“I need my wallet,” he said. “I need my goddamn wallet. Where’s my wallet?” He frantically searched his room, throwing things about. He tossed the blankets and sheets off his bed, and kicked a few ashtrays across his room.
“I can’t fucking find it! I can’t fucking find my goddamn wallet!” His body was nearly convulsing and his voice raised to a fevered pitched. He was running around his apartment tearing things apart.
“Somebody stole it! Somebody stole it!”
“Billy!” I tried to get his attention.
“I’m gonna fucking kill myself! I’m gonna fucking kill myself!” Then he bolted into the kitchen and pulled open a drawer. He yanked out a long kitchen knife and held it to his throat. His eyes were bulging as he titled his head back.
“Oh my God!” Brenda said before exiting the building.
I closed his door and quickly joined her. I was already holding my cellphone to dial 911.
“911, what’s the emergency,” said the wary voice on the other end.
“Yes, I’m a counselor with a homeless outreach group in Hollywood, and one of my clients is holding a knife to his throat.”
“Is the person bleeding? Does he need an ambulance?”
“I don’t know. I left the apartment so I can call 911.”
“The police are on their way sir.”
“Thank you,” it was all I could think of to say.
Brenda and I made our way to the front of the building so that we could meet the police when they arrived. Brenda was a bit shaky, and I was doing my best to not let the situation get a hold of me. I had experienced crisis before, but never had it nearly fallen into my lap. I was five steps away from Billy when he had the knife to his throat. He could have just as easily turned the blade on me.
Within a few minutes, several police cars pulled up to the driveway. A half dozens officers shuffled out. I approached them and told them I was the one that made the call. One of the largest men stepped aside to get some more information from us. I told him about the knife, and about Billy being volatile and unpredictable.
“Where is he now?” the large officer asked.
“In his apartment,” my voice faltered a little. “It’s in the very back of the building.”
“We’ll take care of it,” he said before rejoining the group. Brenda and I watched in horror as all six men drew their weapons. Two of them held large shot guns. They folded into some sort of formation and started slowly making their way down the drive way to the back of the building.
“He’s not going to hurt you,” I said meekly. “This seems unnecessary.”
“We’ll decide what’s necessary,” the big officer shot back.
Suddenly I was reminded of an early adventure where the police had to be called. B, the male in the couple I had mentioned earlier, was making threats against his girlfriend B to the nurse practitioner on the team. Somehow I had gotten embroiled in the mess. I had to make a call to the police based on Tarasoff, a California law which says if you know the intended victim you must make reasonable attempts to keep them from harm which includes notifying them of the threat and/or calling the police. The police had shown up in force that time as well. Eight of them came walking briskly up to the clinic. I greeted them at the door telling them, “You don’t need this many officers. He’s unarmed and not dangerous.” They nearly pushed me aside when they said something similar, “That’s for us to determine.” Sure enough, they all left within a few minutes having “determined” that B was not a threat. Or “just talking out of his ass” one officer angrily said.
Both incidents seemed to confirm a constant complaint by many of the people we met on the street. By most homeless people, police were generally considered a danger to be avoided. I could not help but consider these complaints as I watched six heavily armed men searching for one of my clients. I could not help feeling that if he ran out the door holding that knife he would be gunned down before he had a chance to speak and it would be all my fault. Just as I was trying to formulate a plan to warn him or to stop the men from killing him, Billy came prancing out the front of the building. He walked towards us. Fortunately he no longer had the knife.
“He’s here!” I called the police. “And he doesn’t have the knife!” The police turned to walk back. “Put your hands up Billy!” I added. I tried to help him along by putting my own hands in the air. Brenda quickly joined me.
“Billy put your hands in the air!” she shouted. Bewildered Billy lifted his hands in the air just as the police rounded the corner, and they took him into custody without a problem. They talked to him for a few minutes during which Billy was remarkable calm. Then they handcuffed him and placed them into the back of police car. Brenda and I did not speak for a long time as we watched Billy be driven off. We occupied ourselves by taking care of a few more clients before returning to the office to call it a day.
As I drove home that evening, I was forced to wonder what exactly had brought me to this place of dealing with some of the most needy people in this country. From a young age, whenever I saw someone begging on the street I had always thought about helping the homeless without ever really imagining how I would go about doing so. In my thirties, I studied to be a therapist and malingered in a career where I found little fulfillment. Then the great recession came and my life take an unexpected turn. I experienced my own personal homeless story, and had to work my way up from the bottom. Helping the homeless had become a personal mission for me, but I had no idea what I was in for, what I would learn, and what I would see.