Living Amidst The Tombs: Mental Illness Among The Homeless Of Saint John

Living Amidst The Tombs: Mental Illness Among The Homeless Of Saint John

Robert* is a thirty-five year-old schizophrenic man whom I first met through my volunteer work at the homeless shelter. With his well groomed, neatly trimmed beard, fashionable glasses and intelligent gaze, he did not fit my stereotype of what a homeless, mentally ill man is supposed to look like. It was only by observing his behaviour that I came realize that Robert wasn’t well at all. Pacing back and forth between the long rows of tables, Robert would mutter to himself, carrying on an internal discourse with the voices in his head. At times, he seemed to be on good terms with these inner voices, chuckling merrily at some secret joke that only he could hear. At other moments, his tone would grow harsh and scolding— so much so that I began to worry that his anger might erupt into some physical act of violence. Thankfully, though, he kept his cool throughout the course of that night.

In the weeks that followed, Robert became a staple feature of my ministry in this city. I would see him at the Men’s Shelter and at the Romero House soup kitchen; at our church services and at our free laundry program. He even became a regular at our weekly, Thursday afternoon drop-in program. I vividly remember one time when he came to our drop-in, sat down at one of the tables and picked up a small container of plasticine clay that my son had been playing with several days earlier. Then, using the lump of plasticine, he moulded the effigy of a small man— a man with whom he proceeded to carry on a conversation for up to half-an-hour. It was only after he began to grow angry with his creation (and, presumably, his creation with him) that I felt the need to intervene by diverting his attention to other things.
Over the course of a few weeks I was gradually able to, in piecemeal fashion, put together a general sketch of Robert’s current status in life. He was not originally from our town. Rather, he came here only recently from another city in the Maritimes— a city where his parents, along with most of his friends and relatives, continue to reside. What drew him here was a girl whom he had met online. However, for several reasons (not the least of which being his mental illness) this relationship didn’t last. Eventually, he found himself alone, unhoused and unemployed— a man with a severe mental illness trying to make his way in a city where he had little or no natural supports. For a time, he was utterly adrift. Then, after disappearing from our radar for several weeks, we finally learned that he had returned to his hometown, presumably to live with his parents and reconnect with his natural support system. From time to time, I remember to pray for him.

In the course of our ministry in the inner city, Jasmine and I have met a number of people like Robert— men and women who, due in part to severe mental illness, have ended up living on the outskirts of society. Perhaps you’ve seen them yourself. They amble along sidewalks, loiter on street corners and huddle within bus shelters. Some panhandle; some stare blindly into space. They are, in a purely physical sense, alive. But to the people who pass by— people with schedules to keep, responsibilities to attend to, families to look after— they are little more than ghosts, phantoms that can be either attended to or ignored at will. They don’t live in this city so much as they seem to haunt it.

Here, I’m reminded of a certain character from the gospels. This character has no name although he is sometimes referred to as the Gerasene Demoniac — a violently possessed man, shunted to the outskirts of the little seaside village that should have been his home. The picture that the gospel writers paint of him is horrifying: “He lived among the tombs,” Mark writes in his Gospel. “And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain… Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:3-5).

This is the stuff of nightmares. I envision him as gaunt and thin yet supernaturally strong, his eyes wide with terror and rage, his flesh marred by ugly, self-inflicted gashes. Skulking alone in this lonely place of death, he is a figure that inspires both pity and dread in equal measure. Indeed, for some of us, he may illicit the same response as people like Robert. No, I don’t mean to suggest that the Gerasene demoniac was really mentally ill instead of demon possessed. Nor do I wish to suggest the opposite: that the people of today with severe mental illness are really suffering from some kind of demonic oppression. What I do wish to suggest is this: both the man from this story and our neighbours suffering from severe mental illness do have at least one thing in common. They both illicit great fear and discomfort and, for this reason, are both abandoned— pushed to the margins of society. Indeed, I know at least a couple of churches and service organizations that banned our friend Robert from being on the premises. Frankly, I don’t blame them given the kind of disturbing behaviour he was capable of exhibiting in public.

But, at least with regard to the possessed man from Gergesa, Jesus didn’t leave him to his loneliness and isolation. Instead, he intentionally sought him out— boarding a boat, crossing the Sea of Galilee into gentile country and purposefully approaching him. Although Jesus could have gone anywhere he chose to seek this one lost soul whom everyone else had abandoned in the tombs, in effect, writing him off as already dead.

And, no, although I do believe in miracles, I plainly acknowledge that we may not be able to cure them as Jesus did. We may not be able to, with one firm command, silence the legion of voices in their heads, leaving them as Jesus left the man from the tombs— “clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15). But we can, as Jesus did, begin to draw them back into the life of the broader community— inviting them to our church services and programs; connecting them with people and services that could help them and, in short, drawing them into the ordinary world of conversations and laughter, meals and friendship. We can get to know them by name, wave to them when we see them on the street and have supper with them at an Outflow meal. In short, we can treat them as human beings and not as ghosts. We can welcome them as our own rather than abandoning them to the outskirts of community life, left for dead to haunt the tombs.

* Robert is not the real name of the man I write about in this post and minor changes have been made to his story to obscure his identity.