I attended a fundraiser lunch today. The speaker was Steve Lopez, columnist for the LA Times, who wrote the book "The Soloist." This book has been recently made into a movie, and is the story of a friendship between Lopez and Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a Julliard level musician who had become homeless because of his condition as a paranoid schizophrenic.
Lopez first saw Ayers on the streets of LA, playing a beat up old violin in the shadow of a statue of Beethoven. Lopez decided Ayers would make an interesting column, so he began to learn about his early life and subsequent decline into mental illness. The resulting columns earned both Lopez and Ayers national recognition. As the writer put it himself at the lunch this afternoon, "I have never before had such a reaction to a column. I think it is because everyone who reads about Nathaniel thinks 'there but for the grace of God go I.'"
As recorded in the book, Lopez continually tried to help Ayers by coaxing him inside, getting him sheet music and passing on donated instruments. Some of this help was met with gratitude, but other overtures, such as coercing Ayers to participate in a mission community, providing him an apartment to sleep in, and offering him a chance to perform for an audience were initially rejected. Lopez reported that today, 5 years after they first met, Ayers still hears voices in his head and is on no medication, but that he is now part of the LAMP mission community, and is still living in the same apartment he had 4 years ago. These are all considered part of a success story.
Certainly Nathaniel Ayers' life has been blessed by friendship with Steve Lopez, there is no doubt about that. Friendship is a theme in both the book and movie, and the social workers who know Nathaniel say friendship alone has been the most helpful aspect to his healing.
So my question is this: who is more helped by moving Nathaniel off the streets and into an apartment? Who is more helped by introducing him to a mission community? Is 'normalizing' Nathaniel Ayers truly in his best interest? We can never know his internal struggle, but we have all decided that his life appears better now than it was, at least from the outside looking in.
I am not asking the question to be rude or argumentative. I sincerely wonder what it is that motivates us to house the homeless. The CEO of the sponsoring organization stated emphatically today that, "some homeless people say they choose to live on the streets. But this is not true. Their illness chooses to live on the streets." I'm just not comfortable with this blanket statement. Who are we to say that living without a home is lesser in every case? When does, "there but for the grace of God go I" morph into "not in my back yard?"
I think the story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers is a wonderful tribute to friendship and the breaking down of barriers and misconceptions about mental illness. But most compelling for me is the columist's struggle to find a balance between "fixing" and "walking alongside" Mr. Ayers.