Monday, March 15, 2010

My Nutty Neighbors

You may have noticed when you're walking up or down the west side of 2nd Ave. between Blanchard and Lenora people laying on the sidewalk or wandering aimlessly around or carrying on conversations with no one - almost all of them are smoking. You may assume that this is a gathering point for Belltown's homeless, but you'd be assuming wrong. Most of them are my neighbors. I've lived in the Rivoli for 20 years, and for all that time, the El Rey and its tenants have been next door. Since its renovation in 1988, it has housed people with some pretty severe mental issues. Most would generically regard them as crazy. This makes life interesting at times for many of us at the neighboring Rivoli.

First off, those living next door are like all people: some are sweethearts, others are jerks, but most are somewhere in between. Based on my experience, there is nothing ennobling about being mentally ill. I know that there are tons of movies out there about brilliant crazy people prevailing over their demons even for a brief moment and achieving great things, but I have yet to see someone from the El Rey whip out a violin and dash off Bach's Partita in B Minor or elucidate about a practical way to travel faster than light speed. Apart from being crazy, everyone seems quite ordinary. For 22 years, the El Rey staff has taken care of them, and they've done a stellar job. Most of their residents have no other place to go. For them, it's either the El Rey or the streets. Some of them have actually come from the streets. And that shows in much of their behavior, which verges on the pathological.

Everybody at the El Rey has their quirks; there's the woman who calls me "Paul." There's no persuading her otherwise. She says I look like a Paul. There's the guy who is always inviting me to his family's mansion on top of Queen Anne Hill. There's no mansion; he's a delusional schizophrenic. There's also the guy who will tell me about how God is trying to kill us all. Many, however, are not social at all. There's one fellow living there whom I've never heard speak. He's been a resident for around 15 years. I guess that's his particular quirk. All residents are harmless, non-violent and substance-free, but there are a few that do bring down the quality of life on this block, such as it is. There are a few that are tireless, relentless panhandlers. No matter how many times you walk by, you get hit up. One day a few years ago, I had lots of stuff to do and I must have walked by this one woman a dozen times. Every time, she asked for change. In the following months, the story was the same. Every single time I walked by I'd get asked. She never recognized me as a neighbor or as somebody who never gave her anything. I finally asked her to stop, as I was her neighbor and wasn't going to give her any change. She still asks to this day. Her persistence is fairly incredible and she sometimes ends up making money. What does she spend it on? Twinkies and lotto tickets. All those hours panhandling for those two things. God help us if she ever wins the lottery. There are others who patrol the garbage cans; some rifle through them occasionally, others hourly. This and the panhandling are what bring down the quality of the block; this is the same block that contains the Real Change offices. I've said it before many times: Real Change is a good neighbor. The vendors are very seldom a problem. My only gripe with the El Rey people is that they have a home, medication, care and support, but some can't shake behaving like they're homeless. Those are just the things they do. And there's nothing the El Rey staff can do about it.

Considering the issues that they have to deal with, the El Rey does a great job. Sure, their residents freak out and have psychotic breakdowns sometimes, but overall, they're kept relatively comfortable, safe, and most importantly, medicated. I would much rather have the mentally ill cared for in a place like the El Rey than having them wandering around. But there are some days when seemingly every single person walking the street is nuts, and when you walk past the El Rey, they're the nuttiest of all. So the next time you're in this part of Belltown, just know that these people, regardless of how they appear, have an entire staff that looks after them and that life for them is as good as it can get under the circumstances.

Just a note: this is my thousandth post. I honestly didn't think I'd get past a dozen. Believe me, I'm not that dedicated to any one thing. When I figure out how I stuck with this silly blog so long, I'll let you know.


Sara said...

This information is very insightful and interesting. My boyfriend and I live in the Humphrey, on the other corner of 2nd and Blanchard. Personally, I have always assumed that the people that hang outside of that building are homeless, but it's good to know that they aren't.

xenopoeta said...

As someone who has both worked in the mental health system and coped with mental illness, I have to take issue with your condescending attitude to people with mental illness.

I used to live on 1st and Bell, as well as 2nd and Bell, and I know the building you are talking about. However, I believe that the idea of concentrating these people in a building such as this is a contributing factor to the stigma and exclusion that people with mental illness face. The reality is that people with mental illness actually want and need the same things that everyone else wants and needs for a productive life: 1) a home that they can be proud of living in; 2) a job or a productive way of spending their time (that allows them to be self-sufficient) 3) someone to love and/or friends who care for them; 4) freedom to choose how to live their lives.

Unfortunately, because of societal exclusion and stigma evident in comments such as yours--that "Sure, their residents freak out and have psychotic breakdowns sometimes, but overall, they're kept relatively comfortable, safe, and most importantly, medicated."

"--I would much rather have the mentally ill cared for in a place like the El Rey than having them wandering around."

"...just know that these people, regardless of how they appear, have an entire staff that looks after them and that life for them is as good as it can get under the circumstances.

NO, life is NOT as good as it can get under any circumstances.

They are segregated in group homes; they are forced to take medication; they are forced to live on a poverty income; they are consigned to living without education or a meaningful job. They have no choice of where to live in the city of Seattle and essentially do not have a choice of moving elsewhere, because they have few social networks on which to rely upon, having been institutionalized, in some cases for many years.

It's time to stop these harmful messages from being spread among people about people with psychiatric disabilities.

xenopoeta said...

And another thing: calling your neighbors, "MY NUTTY NEIGHBORS" is just as offensive to me as using a racist name.

Same with the association of mental illness with "ugliness" and "hideous" in Belltown.

Belltown doesn't need you.

ruffhauser said...

I think the bunny is boiling.......

Sara said...

..So why weren't those people taken care of by their families? Why ARE they living in a group home etc.? those people are obviously very seriously ill, with no one in their personal lives to take care of them. which means that they either a. have to take care of themselves or b. the state takes care of them. now it seems to me that people who are severely ill don't have a good chance of being able to take care of themselves. It's an unfortunate, ugly circle, just like the rest of life, and you shouldn't get so pissed at some guy's BLOG about where he lives. FUCKING LIGHTEN UP. Those people COULD be in a much worse place.

David said...

"Those people COULD be in a much worse place."

How is that an excuse? They are human beings, not something to be hidden in a corner. Mental illness is a product of a lot of fucked up environmental and genetic factors, and you should own up to the fact that in the grand scheme of things, the society that you depend on for your income and well-being is the same society that occasionally fucks over someone else, like the residents of the Rey. An economist would call it an "externality" of the system, but you should call them human beings and your neighbors.

Volunteer at a corrective housing unit, it's a humbling experience that will educate and inform you.

Sara said...

This is the society we live in. This is the society that has been crafted by HUMAN BEINGS over the years. And it is fucked up.

I am well aware of the factors that go along with mental illness. I am well aware of how unfair life is for them. I don't look down on those people, they aren't a problem for me, and I do feel bad for them. For them and for everyone else that has a fucked up life because of circumstances that are beyond their control. It is heartbreaking.

Volunteering is a great idea though, at least as an individual there is something one can do to help.

Brad said...

Is the reason they're outside smoking because they're prohibited from smoking inside? I mean, it appears that the only reason they're outside is to smoke.