A Parent Complains: Told To Kick Son Out On Streets In Order To Get Help


Dear Pete,

Our son became homeless at age 22. During the 18 years since then, there have been multiple hospitalizations, a myriad of letters written to psychiatrists begging for treatment, and correspondence with judges seeking support for his grave disability. All written to no avail.

On many occasions our son would return home. During this time we would be able to provide him some respite and warmth. We could nurse his bug bitten legs and feed his thin frame. I could wash his filthy clothing and buy him a sleeping bag that wouldn’t smell of urine.

But we could only take care of him for brief periods of time because the voices he heard eventually told him we were the enemy. His mania would take over and our opportunity to help care for him would evaporate with the need to call 911.

Our son was clearly gravely disabled and as a result of his distorted and paranoid thinking he was homeless. Yet no judge or treatment facility would help him long enough to make a difference. The horror stories we told of his bizarre beliefs or behaviors did not seem to matter.

Nor did it matter how many face-to-face meetings with psychiatrists, nursing staff or judges we had — no help was in sight.

Then, following the death of a family member, he was given the opportunity to live in their tiny vacant home. Here he would have a ‘roof’ over his head, providing protection from the elements of the ever oppressive summer sun, or the relentless cold of winter nights. Here he would be able to live within the safety of the walls of a home, having the security of a locked door. He would no longer live day and night in fear that someone might hurt him while he slept near freeway ramps or park benches. He would have the protection of a ‘home,’ a luxury most of us take for granted. And no persons would be there when his aggressive behaviors became frightening – he could threatened the walls, but they would not be retreating out of fear of their safety.

Over the course of the next year his home had no food unless I purchased it. He ate Epsom salts daily because he believed it would help him ‘shit in a golden bowl’ which somehow would keep him safe. He posted statements all over the house that he assumed also kept him safe. He removed all furniture and electric plugs due to his paranoia of being listened to and he ran around naked in the streets threatening neighbors. The police could do nothing because he had a ‘roof over his head’ and they said “people can be as crazy as they want to be in their own home.”

Here’s the rub —- When he would be hospitalized over and over again during this time of living ‘with a roof,’ the outcome was no different than a hospitalization when he was homeless living ‘without a roof.’    Hospitals still released him with no follow up appointments or medications and no help real life changing help.

The craziest and most telling line of any psychiatrist I have heard yet came from a psychiatrist in Southern California who looked at me and said “Even if I bothered to try to legally conserve him, no judge is going to say he is gravely disabled if he has a roof over his head.”

Even though I had pictures of the insanity in the home, like all other previous hospitalizations,  he was released in three days. What difference did it ever make to a judge’s ruling of grave disability, whether I showed pictures of a hole in someone’s yard that he defecated in for years or a toilet in a home that appeared uninhabitable?

Truly, it made no difference as to whether or not my son received critically needed medical attention.

By definition this psychiatrist was subtly saying “kick your son out to the street where he has no protection from the elements, no warmth at night, no safety of walls, no refrigerator or cupboard for food” and then he’ll get “help.”

Or maybe he was saying, “Take him home like any ‘good parent’ should.”

But we had tried them both and neither had helped us or him.  

Seriously? Who was he kidding?

We had been there and done it all now for years… Year after year to no avail. No help was ever forth coming – whether homeless and ill or raving mad with a roof.

Whether someone is ‘mentally ill on the street’ or ‘mentally ill with a roof’ — even though they have a medical condition that deserves treatment —there is truly very little life changing / life stabilizing help out there, and few in the mental health field are doing “whatever it takes,” even though that is the new trendy motto in the field.

Eighteen years of watching my son live homeless, untreated, hospitalized, then released back to being homeless again and again. The story never really changed all those years, it just got worse with time.

Then one day he was finally sent to a State Psychiatric Hospital long enough to make a difference to his illness. Most importantly, when he got out, he finally agreed to remain on medication and was able to return home. Currently he is stable, engaged weekly with family and living ‘with a roof’ of his own.

This was not a question of us not knowing what to do to help him. The question is why did we have to wait eighteen years?

Sign me – a frustrated parent.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.