COLUMN: The warriors living on Salem’s streets

Editor’s note: This column contains descriptions of sexual assault. Salem’s Center for Hope and Safety has a 24 hour hotline to aid victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 800-656-HOPE (4673).

I met a woman who is living in a tent. She shared that a man moved himself in, uninvited. He won’t leave, and he’s raping her each night. She’s teeny. I was teary as I listened to her story, and I told her I’m so sorry, and this isn’t okay, and please come to our shelter with me.

Her situation is complicated, and she has one thing that means more to her than anything in the world — her urn of her dog’s ashes. She won’t leave without it. It’s the only thing she has left that she cares about. I told her again that this isn’t okay. She responded so casually that this is just life. 

The whole situation is so sad. Yet the thing that broke my heart most is that she casually knows and believes that this is “just life,” as my heart screamed NO, that is NOT life! No one has the right to do that! On a different day, she added to that, sharing that it’s been life since she was a kid — her mom pimped her out all her life, so rape IS just life for her. 

What a different world from kids and adults who’ve had the luxury of a “normal” or at least a not-harmful childhood. 

How to fix these things keeps me up at night.
A man called me last month looking for shelter for his wife. They were kicked out of two apartments and two shelters because of her screaming and erratic behaviors. So they have been homeless together for a while, and it’s cold and wet and they need shelter.

He shared about the reason for her behaviors — she thinks people are doing things that other people are not seeing. In her alternate reality, the things she sees and hears are horrific. If we were hearing and seeing these things, we’d be yelling too. He’s called police, mental health professionals, shelters, and so many other places to try to get help for her, but he’s told that she’s not enough of a danger to herself or others to qualify for having her committed to get help that she doesn’t believe she needs.

He shares that she recently thinks HE is one of the people doing the bad things. So he thinks she might be better off without him. He’ll go to a men’s shelter so she’s free of him and whatever she has begun thinking about him. But he won’t leave her unless she’s in a safe place first. She wasn’t like this when they met. But this has happened to her slowly and it’s gotten worse and worse. Her reality is so real to her that she won’t seek help. If someone told me now to check with a mental health professional to see about my delusions, would I go, when I “know” my reality IS real? Would you? 

Her delusions are frequent and very loud. She’s not going to be feasible as a guest at most shelters. He tells me that he loves her. He married her. He made a commitment to be there with her, for her, through good and bad, thick and thin. He wasn’t expecting this to happen, but now that it did, he can’t leave her homeless and alone. If they can’t keep a place to live and if her behaviors won’t work in a shelter, he’ll stay on the streets with her, because he loves her and he signed up for life. 

I can share how there is not a way to force help until/unless someone is a danger to themself and/or others. I can share how high that bar is. And there are good reasons to have a high bar. Yet in the interest of protecting individuals’ autonomy, people are dying on the streets. I now wish for a lower bar. 

And his story vividly and sadly shows how some people have made commitments that have them go down with their loved one. And it’s easy for me to think that at some point, the hard times are more than we signed up for, and it’s OK to separate for your own safety and sanity. And then I think that if it happened to either of my kids, I’d try to be there, even through all that. And maybe I’d reach a limit. Yet that’s my closest glimmer of understanding of how and why some people go down with their loved ones, through hell, and hopefully back out, somehow, some way.

We live among warriors who are so often treated like vermin. 

What if we believed the reality that so many sad and debilitating things could happen to any of us? What if we acknowledged that so much is determined by luck of the draw of both nature and nurture? What if we saw souls bigger than we saw bodies, struggles, and clothes?

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Lynelle Wilcox has served people experiencing homelessness in Salem for six years - initially volunteering at warming centers and homeless events. As people shared their stories through the years, she saw how much a smile and hello can create commonality, connection, and sometimes hope. And hope can change everything. She writes about some of the things she’s learned along the way, and shares some of the stories. She adores her kids, and loves vivid colors, cats, happy clothes, music, cooking, skies, dogs, and daisies