It was early summer and I was deep into my counseling internship at the behavioral health clinic. I was lucky enough to have a giant corner office with many windows overlooking downtown Portland – room enough to conduct both my individual sessions and run groups.
It was so big that I decided to bring in two of my own bookcases to fill out the space. Lucky for me, a relative who happened to be a retired psychologist, had a ton of books to donate to my cause.
I figured my clients would walk into the room and see all those counseling-related books and be less concerned that I was an intern. I just hoped they didn’t ask me whether I had read them all because then I would have to fess up.
I chose a late night to get the books into my office. The clinic had a hand-truck to make life easier, but it was still a lot of boxes to move.
A story I’ll never forget
As I was unloading books from my car, a young man in his early thirties came strolling up and casually asked me for $25. While I have been asked for money many times, never has someone on the street asked me for $25!
I was taken aback, but even more, just really curious. I told him I would consider his request if he explained to me exactly why he needed the money.
Without knowing at all what I did for a living, he said, “I have been in drug treatment for the past month…a couple of days ago, was kicked out and have nowhere to go… I’m homeless and need the money to buy a bus ticket to San Francisco where my parents live.“
Made sense to me. “Why did you get kicked out of drug treatment?” I asked.
The question made him squirm. He looked down at the pavement and said nothing. I could sense he felt shame. Then in a soft voice he said flatly, “I was caught on my bed with another man.”
I replied non-judgmentally that it seemed like a dumb reason to get kicked out of treatment, and that I would help him. I gave him my business card from the clinic and said to come see me the next morning when I could funds to help him. Because he had nowhere to sleep I pointed him in the direction of a nearby shelter.
Offering my help
The next morning when I stumbled tiredly into the clinic, he was sitting in the lobby waiting for me. It was a busy day. I had two evaluations back-to-back and the first client was also in the waiting room. I had him come back to my office where we chatted briefly about the money.
I said I would make some calls, fill out some paperwork, and we could reconvene in my office around 11am to finalize things. He thanked me for my efforts and said he would be back then.
He never returned
Around 3pm that afternoon I got a call from the county coroner. He had a body and the only item found on it was my business card. The man had overdosed just blocks from my office. My heart sank and my mind raced.
- What had gone wrong?
- How could this have happened?
- What had I missed?
I will never fully know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that he overestimated the amount of drug his body could handle after being clean for a number of weeks while in treatment.
I don’t think he was suicidal, but perhaps I missed something. To this day I regret not taking more time to assess his risks for relapse and overdose, but I didn’t know then what I know now.
For me, homelessness will always have a face.
Read more on the homeless population: Homelessness and Addiction Part: 1
Kelsey Quesnell says
Wow. That is an extremely moving story. I admire that man for having the courage to come forward and ask someone for money when he truly had nowhere left to turn. But of course at that point he had nothing left to lose too. I am surprised that he actually told you what he needed the money for. I would assume that he wouldn’t have the time to explain or care enough to. I think that really shows how desperate that man was and how much he was desperate for some help. My gut tells me that if he wasn’t kicked out from rehab, he would have lived. He wanted help.
Linda Nguyen says
I have read your two posts titled Addiction & Homelessness, Part 1 posted on April 24th 2013 and Addiction & Homelessness, Part 2 posted on April 29th 2013.
From being from Washington in a small town called Kennewick I was never really exposed to homelessness or seeing anyone who was in that kind of a situation. But with moving to Portland, Oregon starting school at Portland State in 2011, I was honestly shocked to how much homelessness there is and it honestly just seems like its becoming a bigger problem day by day.
I think people who do have a home, that can afford things they want, and who can go out and enjoy the luxury side of life forget that things can be worst. People tend to look at homeless individuals and think ‘That will never happen to me’ rather than ‘I wonder what’s their story and how they ended up losing everything they have.’ I think people don’t realize that it is beyond embarrassing and shameful to have to beg for mere coins from people who walk by them when 90% of the time gets ignored. I like how you said in your post, “As someone who has spent a career treating those who struggle with addiction, my stance has always been that giving money to the homeless essentially equates to giving them the means to engage in addiction – because of course they will use the money to buy alcohol or drugs!” A lot of people think just because they are begging for money, they automatically assume that it is going to alcohol or drugs but that’s not the case at all.
I do believe that becoming homeless does bring someone to their lowest, that they will try something such as a drug to forget or escape. And maybe that’s where it all starts or maybe they don’t have anything else to lose. I understand that things happen. But who am I to say that a homeless individual is not worth living life just as much as we are? It breaks my heart even thinking about it.
I agree that each individual has a story, whether you have nothing or if you have everything. I think individual’s have really done a good job at ignoring our problems and we feel as if we are a strong society, yet we are judging it at the same time and its just hard to wrap my mind around it.
For your second post, Part 2, it reminds me a lot of a situation I have been though. I can’t count the endless times that I have been asked for extra change around the streets of Portland. But I do remember whom, when, and where of a man asking me for money because of the one time I have asked, “why?” I was walking to dinner with my boyfriend and this man came up to us asking for money so he can stay at a shelter. Not only he explained why he needed money, but he didn’t want to stand near me because he thought he smelled horrible. He explained that his daughter didn’t want to take care of him anymore therefore he ended up on the streets. His daughter wanted him to get clean before he can be apart of her family. Honestly, I could tell he was ashamed. He seemed very genuine and he was very nice! He only asked for 7 dollars to go to the shelter. He even had a piece of paper of that shelter and how much prices were and where it was located it and what services they provide. He wasn’t kidding. Before he could finish I gave him twenty dollars. I didn’t need to hear more. Your post reminded me of this time because when you asked the man who you wanted to help to come back around 11am to finalize things, but yet he never returned.
It’s scary to think about out of everyone you have helped, if they are okay today.
Linda, thanks so much for the feedback! Agree with your comments about he homeless and our need to continue to do what we can to help this population.
Kristen Deaton says
This post hits close to home for me. I am in the LGBTQ community, and homeless LGBTQ people, particularly youth, have a special place in my heart. This is a population who I want to spend my career aiding and helping. About a quarter of the homeless youth population in America is part of the LGBTQ community, and many are abused, kicked out of their homes, and involved with substance abuse. The fact that this young man could possibly be part of my community, and that he was homeless, really makes me want to reach out more to the homeless population in Portland. I have two years of experience with volunteer work with homeless population at my previous college near Pittsburgh, and that is when my eyes were opened to the fact that homeless people are still PEOPLE! I was so naive before spending several hours a week with the poorest of the poor in Pittsburgh, but I fell in love with working and talking and simply being with the homeless population. I really appreciate your perspective on this population here in Portland, and I’m glad that homelessness will always have a face for you; it has many faces for me.
Thanks Kristen, and glad to hear about your desire to help the LGBTQ homeless population. Your future work will help many.
Josh B says
First of all this is a very sad story. But I do agree with you that homelessness is a huge issue. Especially when thrown into the battle against addiction. I once took an entire class on the idea of ‘place’ and how it effected us and our daily lives. ‘Place’ being anything from the room we are currently in, to the building, city, planet etc that we inhabit and how we interact with it and how it effects us. Homelessness creates a sort of ‘Placelessness’ if you will, or our sense of place becomes very unstable. Even just being homeless causes one to, over time, disconnect with reality, and often the longer a person is homeless the higher chance that person is to be psychologically unbalanced in some sense or another. If a person is already struggling with addiction then there is already an imbalance, add homelessness on top of it and you have an unbalance that is going to get steadily worse. Possibly akin to gasoline on a fire. Without a steady sense of ‘place’ I doubt there is much healing that can be done for anyone, addiction or not.
Josh, thanks for the insightful feedback. Could not agree more with your thoughts about place and how it influences the homeless. A good book I enjoyed on place is The Power of Place by Winifred Gallagher.
Your post have pulled back many of the incidences that many of us who live in Portland have encountered. I personally have been asked on numerous times for “some spare change” while being downtown and around max stations. I have given what I have at hand—but I can’t help everyone. What can I do to make a change on my own individual level besides slowly handing off my bank? Your story was a very tragic case because the fellow had made a step to make changes in his life and circumstance. Thank you for sharing.
Gabriel Elias says
I was fortunate enough to here you tell this story a couple weeks ago in my Drug Ed class. Reading it over, it still gives me chills. The fact that he told you the truth is amazing. I’ve been asked for money numerous times and I honestly don’t take the time of day to even contemplate ever giving money to anyone. Hearing this story definitely makes me reflect and I’ll think twice next time someone asks. It’s so difficult telling the difference between those who are really in need and those who just pretend. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to go through this and I respect you a lot for being able to deal with this traumatic event and yet continue to be inspired to help others. What’s the most tragic part is the fact the man was trying to overcome an addiction and most likely just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It only goes on to teach everyone a lesson about thinking twice before turning homeless people down. Thanks for sharing, it was truly inspiring to hear.
Maikhanh Tran says
This is a very powerful story and experience that you had to endure and I really appreciate you for sharing it. I think that it is important to realize how much other people are going through and that our little efforts could go a very long way to help them. As I go around with my parents, my dad never gives any money to the homeless because he assumes that they will just spend it on alcohol or drugs, not something productive. But after my brothers had gone through rehab, the experience got me thinking about how difficult it must be for the homeless whom struggle with drug abuse. My brother already had a very hard time detoxing somewhere extremely comfortable.
Chris B. says
Portland is no stranger to seeing homeless people on the streets and asking for spare change. When I wait for the max or when I’m caught at a red light while driving I usually see people holding up signs that say “Anything helps, God Bless.” I give what I can at the time and just carry on with my life; I’ve never taken the time to ask why. Like in your case, why did you need the money? Being homeless is an issue but to make matters even more worse is being an addict and homeless. Like you mentioned in your last post in regards to homelessness some use the money that people give them to buy drugs, it’s like a cycle, and we’re enabling them to be addicts. But the story you shared here was different, the individual was making a change in his life to become a better person unfortunately he wasn’t able to see that. It makes me wonder if he wasn’t kicked out of rehab would he still be here today.
Thanks for sharing your story.
Jeanmarie F says
It’s very sad how there is a huge problem with drug addiction in the homeless community. A lot of people are not aware of all of the resources out there where they can get clean and get help. Your blog is very inspiring and will make me reconsider any judgmental thoughts the next time I should encounter someone asking for money on the street. I think that it was kind of you to offer to help him; unfortunately it’s up to the individual to take that help. We only have so much control over people’s actions. There should be more people willing to help like you, perhaps if there were, this world would have a lot less despair. Many people in the homeless community have dark pasts of abuse that led them down the path they chose. To really help and individual, we must get to the root of the problem and confront the issues that created the drug addiction in the first place, followed by treatment and rehabilitation. I admire your efforts and determination to help those in need suffering in this drug epidemic.
Roazena M. says
Good Evening Dr. I must say after reading your post i tried to make similar connections to situations like that myself. Many times I believe i could have helped someone who is homeless by just giving them a dollar. However, a lot of times i didn’t. Just like you, having questions about that homeless person i did too. I sometimes question what if i do give this person my money would my dollar make a difference for that person? So after that, I had a friend who told me about her story and what she said was that even the simplest gestures matter because they do make a difference (knowing that she was in the same situation before). The main challenge for me is to know who will use what you have to offer in a good or bad way, truth is we don’t know but it’s always good to give willingly.
Hi Dr. Fitzgerald, this particular post on your blog really caught my attention. Like many others, I encounter the faces of homeless strangers who wander the streets in downtown Portland. I do not live near there, so I do not walk around as much in the area. However, when I do want to visit a place somewhere in the city, I almost always have a homeless person approach me and ask for spare change. I immediately wave them off and tell them that I do not have any loose change. Eventually, I would feel bad for not being able to help them out, but I also feel as though they might use the money they receive on drugs. It is an uncomfortable feeling anticipating that possibility, so I try to avoid giving them money for their own good. However, after reading your post, not once have I ever considered their actual story and how they ended up being homeless in the first place. Homelessness is a major issue, but so is drug use. The drug usage could lead to drug abuse and possibly lead to addiction or overdose. I guess I fear that I might be “aiding” the homeless people in purchasing street drugs if I ever gave them money. I could never know if all they wanted was sustenance or shelter. Maybe I could ask them explain to me what their story is the next time they greet me or ask for change. Thank you for sharing your post.
There are no simple answers to this problem, but people who are homeless do have stories to tell! Every time I take the time to ask, I am always moved by what I learn if I really listen. I don’t always give money, it really depends on the situation. But there is a difference now for me, because instead of just walking and ignoring people, assuming the money is for drugs, I now realize even if it is for drugs, they still are like me in many ways. They mirror parts of myself and remind me are all one.
I found this post very moving and I appreciate your insightful and open minded approach to the issue of homelessness. Living in Portland my whole life, I have always been surrounded by the issue of homelessness. I am proud that our city tries in a lot of ways to help the homeless people here, but you are completely right in saying the problem will not be resolved through giving out a few dollars here and there, rather through a change in the system of how we address the problem of homelessness as a society. I have often dealt with individual’s who do not possess an open mind to the struggles of homeless people but actually blame the reason for their homelessness on the person’s own stupidity, selfish addiction, laziness or other reasons that only put blame on the homeless person. The factors that may have lead to their state of homelessness are diverse and countless. It is appalling to me, knowing how many people can so easily not even acknowledge the homeless people they pass on the street, not seeing them as a person but rather an infection on their city.
John Fitzgerald says
Thanks Marie, appreciate the feedback!
First of all I wanted to thank you for speaking in our class at Portland State last Tuesday morning. You told us this story in class and it had a lasting impression on me. I do not think I will ever be able to forget it. Not in a negative way, but in a way that will always remind me to help someone if they need it. Life is always busy, but to remember to slow down and make time for what matters.
I find this story to be especially heartbreaking because if he would have been able to stay in treatment, he may be on the road to recovery rather than dead in the ground. This story reminds me of why we need to make changes and give rights to those who are homosexual. They deserve basic human rights and should not be punished for loving someone of their own same sex.
I do not understand why someone would need to be kicked out of rehab if it were sex between consenting adults. I feel at the very least he could have been transferred to another facility and be able to receive care and help with his addiction.
Again, thank you for speaking and sharing your stories with our classroom. It is great to hear from someone who works in the field, rather than just reading a textbook. Your presence in our classroom is greatly appreciated and respected.
John Fitzgerald says
Lauren, thanks for the kind feedback, you could not be more right in your comment. No one should ever get kicked out of treatment due to sexual orientation. It was great speaking in your class again, something that has not happened before. All the best to you.