A Boston Doctor Washes Feet And Treats Street People “Lost In Plain Sight”


After Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, was published, I wanted to write a book about homelessness. Georgetown Ministries in Washington D.C. allowed me to spend several weeks with one of its workers who patrolled the streets handing out water bottles and helping mostly homeless men who had mental illnesses and co-occurring addictions. I met a handful well enough to write what I thought was a fabulous book proposal.

But when my agent showed it to my editor, he rejected it, telling me that “No one wants to pay $30 for a book about those people.”

I’m glad that Dr. James J. O’Connell and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program didn’t listen to my editor because Dr. O’Connell’s recently published book Stories From the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor, is one that I wished I would have written. It is a gem and one of the best books about homeless Americans that has ever been written.

Stories From the Shadows is being marketed as a memoir, but it really isn’t. What Dr. O’Connell has assembled are 30 short stories — some more diary entries than narrative tales  — about men and women who have crossed paths with him since 1985 after he earned his M.D. at Harvard Medical School, completed his residency in internal medication at Massachusetts General Hospital and decided to spend a stint inside what then was New England’s largest and oldest shelter in Boston.

He intended to stay only a few months before moving to what surely would have been a rewarding and profitable career in oncology. He not only stayed working as a doctor on the streets, but two years later helped form the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Scores of homeless men and women in Boston are better because of it.

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Dying in Jail Cells: No Room In State Hospitals For Jailed Prisoners

mitchell(9-30-15) In a comprehensive front page story in today’s edition, The Washington Post describes how a 24 year old black man with mental illness died in jail after waiting three months to be sent to a Virginia state mental hospital.

I published a blog about Jamycheal Mitchell’s death earlier this month based on a story written by Lisa Suhay in the Christian Science Monitor. Post reporter Justin Jouvenal goes beyond that initial story to expose an ongoing national scandal — the warehousing of persons with mental illnesses in local jails because of a lack of psychiatric beds in state hospitals.

Mitchell should never have been jailed. He was accused of stealing $5.05 worth of food from a convenience store. He should have been diverted into community care and treatment. His death is yet another senseless tragedy caused by our neglect in providing adequate mental health services and reforming our criminal justice system with an emphasis on diversion.

Mitchell’s name can be added to an increasing number of preventible tragedies that have happened because we are using our jails and prisons as defacto mental asylums. What the public needs to understand is that even if Mitchell had been sent to a state hospital, the goal of the doctors there would have been to restore him to competency for trial — not necessarily to treat him!

Kudos to the Post and Reporter Jouvenal for continuing to expose flaws in our mental health system here in Virginia and across the nation and to Mira Signer, NAMI’s executive director in Virginia, for speaking out about this travesty.

Man accused of stealing $5 in snacks died in jail as he waited for space at mental hospital

By Justin Jouvenal   The Washington Post 

Jamycheal Mitchell had stopped taking his schizophrenia medication before he walked into a 7-Eleven near his family’s Portsmouth, Va., home in April and allegedly stole a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake totaling $5.05.

After the 24-year-old’s arrest, a judge ordered him to a state psychiatric hospital to get help. But like an increasing number of the mentally ill, he sat in jail for months as he waited for a bed to open.

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NAACP Asks Me To Speak About Natasha McKenna’s Death; Her Family Issues Public Statement

natasha mckenna

PRESS PLAY BELOW TO HEAR MY MY SIX MINUTE SPEECH AT THE RALLY* (also see correction at bottom of blog.)


A new crisis assessment center for persons with mental illnesses in Fairfax County, Virginia, should be named after Natasha McKenna. That is what I told a crowd Sunday (9-27-15) outside the jail where the 37 year-old black woman was stunned with a taser four times by sheriff’s deputies and later died.

Shirley Ginwright, the president of the Fairfax Chapter of the NAACP, asked me to speak at the rally. In my six minute talk, I said McKenna should never have been arrested or taken to jail. She had schizophrenia and had been to emergency rooms seeking help five times prior to her incarceration.

I asked  the NAACP to recommend that the county’s new crisis center be named in Natasha McKenna’s honor to remind everyone of the importance of jail diversion and of providing community based mental health services.  Having a mental illness should not be a crime.

Natasha McKenna’s family’s attorney, Harvey Volzer, read a statement at the rally, which I’ve printed below. It is the first time the family has spoken about their loss.

As we have coped with the tragic loss of our beloved Natasha McKenna, our family would like to thank everyone who has prayed for us and supported us. Natasha’s death weighs heavy on our hearts because our dear loved one suffered and died unnecessarily.

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Dropped Coins Collected For Homeless By 2nd Grader: A Surprising Story

Be certain to read to the end for a surprise.


This 7-Year-Old is Making Life Better for Homeless New Yorkers

Seven year-old Maribella goes to school in the East Village.

Every day she and her mother, Michelle, walk through Tompkins Square Park, where they see more and more homeless men and women suffering on the streets. Maribella decided she couldn’t just walk past them again and do nothing. So she figured out something even a second-grader could do to help.

About a year ago, Maribella began collecting loose change that she found on the sidewalk and under couch cushions, keeping the spare pennies, nickels and dimes in a special jar on her bedside table. She carefully kept track of what she collected in a journal. Now, a year later, her jar holds $25 dollars in change! She decided she wanted to give the money to one of the homeless people she sees everyday – along with a note of well wishes:


“Dear _____, I’m giving you money because you need a house and food to [survive]. You might [be] able to get a [meal]. We collected this just for you, by picking up money from the ground. This might make you have a better life, cause we don’t want you to be homeless. Love, Maribella. We care about you”.


Maribella didn’t stop there! In addition to continuing to collect spare change, she and her mother will host a lemonade stand and stoop sale in Ridgewood, Queens this Saturday (9-19-15). The money raised will go towards helping even more homeless New Yorkers through the life-saving programs of the Coalition for the Homeless. Maribella and her mom will also be sharing our facts about homelessness with visitors to educate and raise awareness about homelessness in New York City.  Thank you, Maribella, for your compassion toward and support of our homeless neighbors. You are truly an inspiration to all of us! Make a direct donation to the Coalition’s programs that serve 3,500 homeless men, women and children each day.

And now the surprise: Maribella is our granddaughter. We knew she was collecting dropped coins but had no idea that she would decide to give them to the homeless.


Mother Tried To Get Daughter Help Before Tragedy: Turning Our Outrage Into Action


(To watch the video click here. A technical glitch has caused problems in playing it on my blog.)

I was struck when I watched this short news clip at the poignant eloquence of a mother who is distraught because she couldn’t get help for her daughter who had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. The result was an outcome that we see and hear too often. Why couldn’t this family get help? (Be sure to listen to the entire story!)

Reader Charlene Turene mentioned her frustration about our system too in a recent email.

Dear Pete,

Can you write something in your blog about burnout for parents, for all of us who love someone with a mental illness who continue to come up to brick walls, ignorance, stigma , senseless arrests, beatings, severe lack of resources, a quick “band aid, good luck and out the emergency room door treatment,”  shame and more. 

The culture, the mass media never pauses to say, wonder or simply ask- why didn’t this person get the help they needed? How much suffering was caused and could of been avoided for the mentally ill, for the family, for any victims, for society? I keep thinking of my family doctor who knows my son who lives with the challenge of schizophrenia, who said to me- “Too bad he is not developmentally delayed. He would have access to all kinds of care and society is compassionate with those with DD/ Autism but not bipolar/ schizophrenia/ depression….”

Sigh. It has been heart breaking and documented all too well in your book and your blogs, in your heart and mine and the millions, yes millions who have loved and love someone with mental illness.

It is so hard to read horrific stories and see little being done to fix our system. How long will it take? Why is it taking so long? No, I won’t give up. If not me, if not you, than who? 

Charlene Turene

It is, indeed, easy to become discouraged, but the final two sentences in Carlene’s email are what I cling too.

 No, I won’t give up.

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Protesters Lambast County Officials About Natasha McKenna Death

mckenna protest

September 15 — For more than two hours last night, angry protesters criticized county officials about the death of Natasha McKenna, a 37 year-old woman diagnosed with schizophrenia who died earlier this year after being stunned with a taser four times in the Fairfax County detention center.

Frequently breaking into chants of “Black Lives Matter” and McKenna’s last words – “You Promised You Wouldn’t Kill Me” – the protesters aired their complaints during a public meeting of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission which has no jurisdiction of the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, but was created to review police interactions with the public.

This was the second public forum held by the commission and by far the best attended and most emotional. Several times, protesters shouted at the commission. The protesters accused the sheriff’s office of murdering McKenna and condemned Commonwealth Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh for labeling McKenna’s death an “accident” and blaming it on “excited delirium,” a conclusion reached by the state Medical Examiner’s Office two days after McKenna’s death.

Although the commission had nothing to do with Morrogh’s report, its members came under fire for not publicly calling for Morrogh’s resignation and for not having more minority members as commissioners.

Speaking on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Bob Carolla described a frightening encounter that he had with the police during his first psychotic break and explained that persons with mental illness often have trouble following police orders when they are not thinking clearly. Carolla asked why the INOVA health care system was not being questioned about its handling of McKenna who went to several INOVA emergency rooms seeking help before she was arrested.

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