A Woman on the Street
Something happened to me a few days ago that I can’t get off of my mind. I was driving from my house to the studio, and I made my usual turn off of Sunset onto Vine, which is a very busy, four-lane street. Out of nowhere, I suddenly saw an older woman in dirty, baggy clothes pushing a wheelchair straight into the traffic moving from my left to my right.
She seemed determined to cross all four lanes to get to the other side, but without the slightest regard to the fact that cars were coming at her at a dangerous speed. She pushed the wheelchair backward, and she was severely bent over, her head down, almost buried in the pile of clothes, rags and belongings stacked in the seat. She could barely see where she was going. And because she was so low to the ground, I feared the cars, and especially the trucks, might not be able to see her. This was not shaping up well, not by a long shot.
I hit my brakes and angled my car to block the two lanes of traffic in my direction. I then flashed my lights and waved frantically out my window to alert the cars coming the opposite way. Fortunately, everyone responded quickly and without even the toot of a horn.
So, now all traffic is stopped. When the woman cleared my two southbound lanes, I started moving again before I caused an accident by being stopped in the middle of the street, nowhere close to a crosswalk or light. I guess, I figured I had done my job. But as I reached the light at Santa Monica Boulevard and started turning left, I glanced back and saw that the woman had since turned completely around and was retracing her route right back across the same two lanes of traffic that I previously had blocked. She was kind of weaving and circling. Cars were slamming on their brakes, and now they were blowing their horns. It was surprising there wasn’t a wreck and that she wasn’t run over.
I made the turn and thought, ‘You need to get back there.’ I looped through the neighborhood and went back to where she had been. But she was gone, and I mean gone. I couldn’t see her anywhere, and I looked and looked. It was like she had been absorbed by the world that, for the most part, probably looked right past her. I wondered if anyone cared where she was on this particular morning.
I have no idea what happened to her. But questions haunt me. Should I have done more in the first place? What would I have done if I had found her when I went back? Here I am, having spent my life as a mental health professional, and I can tell you, I had no plan! Should I have parked and gotten out and offered assistance? Taken her to an emergency room? Led her into a restaurant and gotten her something to eat? Tried to identify her and maybe find some family? Should I have driven her to one of the very few shelters available for lost, disoriented people like her? Should I have called the police or the county sheriff and tried to get a protective commitment for her?
I wonder, in retrospect, if the reason I didn’t stop was because of unconsciously worrying about the unknowns. Was she diseased? Mentally ill and unpredictable? Maybe even violent? I didn’t consciously think about those things at the time, but then I didn’t immediately park and hop out to help, either. I was in a hurry to get to a meeting — but big deal, aren’t we all always in a hurry? Did I drive by a human being in harm’s way because it would have been inconvenient to stop? I promise you, if it had been a child, I would have gotten out, but with this homeless woman, I didn’t. No one else did either. And that bothers me, more for me than them.
Many homeless people do suffer from mental illness. Research has found that the vast majority of homeless people in urban areas are mentally ill, and that many of them have a history of psychiatric hospitalization. That just means they deserve more of our help, concern and compassion. You can tell I’m bothered that I didn’t stop, and more that I didn’t have a plan. Because of this experience, I will be better prepared the next time I see a human being in harm’s way.
What have you done? And what would you do? Please, let me hear from you. And to learn more about mental health resources in your area, click here.