Love you. Love you more.
This was first posted on the United Way of King County Blog in July 2013.
I first learned that my mom was going to become homeless while sitting in a hotel room outside of Venice. I was traveling across Europe with my best friends and celebrating my new job on United Way's ending homelessness team. I thought it would be a temporary situation that I could quickly fix (I like to fix things). Little did I know that it would be almost 6 years before it would end. At the time I could not have imagined that it would end like this:
"A woman's body was discovered behind 1 West Walk, in the area of Captain Thomas Boulevard and Campbell Avenue, at 8:51 p.m., police said. Police have identified her as Francis McGowan, 56, who was known to police and had no known address, according to police. Police said there was a liquor bottle near her body and no obvious indications of foul play."
Tragic? Depressing? Heart breaking? Yes. But her story isn't unique. Too many people die on the streets each year as a result of inadequate services and systems to help people with chronic mental health issues and a breakdown of our social service system.
My mom, Fran, was a soft spoken CT native who would do anything for her family. She chaperoned school field trips, made the most amazing cupcakes, and designed elaborate Halloween costumes for her quirky kids. Among them, a Pepsi Can, KFC Bucket, and Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall. My mom was a stellar list maker, creative problem solver, and an avid reader. She loved her kids and was our best advocate - at school, in the dance studio, and on the field.
Unfortunately my mom suffered from depression, anxiety and a host of other severe mental health issues. They went undiagnosed and untreated for far too long. She used vodka to cope with the pain and this grew into a chronic substance abuse problem. By the time she became homelessness, she was already a "frequent flyer" in the emergency room for various incidents related to alcohol abuse.
While my mom was homeless she went through dozens of rehab programs. She always excelled in them - she was a gold star student. But the transition to housing never went well. She couldn't maintain sobriety as required by most transitional housing programs. She bounced from program to program, wait list to wait list, all the while using the jail and hospital systems as places to sober up.
I knew that she needed housing first. A program model that would provide her with a stable roof over head - even if she continued to drink. But CT doesn't have enough of these programs and I met many case managers along the way who didn't believe in the "housing first" philosophy. We were stuck with Band-Aids to a problem that required delicate surgery.
My mom spent too many cold winter nights behind a church because she hated the shelters. The bugs, the screaming, the fighting...she couldn't deal with it. She felt safe outside as long as she could end the night with a text or a call to say "love you, love you more."
At this point in the story many people ask "what about the family?" We did what we could of course (although there is more I wish I had done). I always made sure she had a phone so we could maintain connection. My Springwire friends taught me that a connection is among the most important thing someone can have when they struggle with homelessness. There were hundreds of hotel rooms, bank transfers, an apartment, and even a search party when she went missing one Christmas. But we were losing the battle against mental illness and substance abuse.
Early in 2013 things got pretty bad with my mom. The alcohol abuse had taken a toll on her and her loved ones. She was staying outside again. I called case managers and outreach workers with little success - "she doesn't want help," they said. I even tried but failed to have her committed to a mental hospital (CT has very strong patient protection laws). She ended up in a women's prison for several days because of outstanding warrants - largely related to being homeless.
It is too late for my mom but not too late for thousands of others who are living outside and struggling with mental illness. It is simply unacceptable for this to continue happening. We need to raise awareness and empathy for individuals and families who are struggling. We need to band together and fight for better policies and practices. I hope to start a dialogue and welcome your ideas.
The good news is that my mom spent the last few months of her life in a rehab program that seemed to go quite well. I saw her over Memorial Day weekend and she was tan, confident, and optimistic about the future. I was too. While that didn't last, I am glad it is my lasting memory of her.
Love you mom. Love you more.