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October 16th, 2009 by Dr. Phil

A Woman on the Street

homeless1Something 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.

homeless2I 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.

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257 Responses to “A Woman on the Street”

  1. Nancy says:

    Dr Phil, I would have stopped and offered assistance, and if she seemed incoherent I would have called 911 or the non-emergency number and requested a law enforcement official to come and handle it. They are trained and know where to take her or who to contact, be it the hospital, a shelter, or elsewhere. You did a good thing by stopping traffic in the first place.

  2. Buffy says:

    It is thought that many of the homeless population suffer from “sleep-disordered breathing”, a condition treatable with “continuous positive airway pressure”. This condition causes depression, anxiety and impaired neurocognitive performance. It can even cause psychosis in some. Please help spread awareness of the condition. Many psychotropic meds, sedatives, etc actually increase the risk for respiratory complications.

  3. kelly young says:

    wondering what your thoughts are on my last year of “life”, feb.18 2009 my son was killed in accident, within 48 hours later, my husband of 15 years had a heartattack and past away. i am 35 yrs old, have 19 yr old son,17yr old daughter,12 yr old son and8 yr old daughter. i sued plumbing co. that hit ty, got settlement which had to be split between my 2 small children and ty’s biological mother, in which didnt even know him, and her 2 other children in which doesnt know her either. the judge allowed me to buy home, and put the rest in trust fund for kids later in life. so now i sit here raising 3 kids, on widows pay from social security, applied for foodsatmps, got turned down, due to the trust fund, in which i cannot have any of the money in it.cannot seem to pay someone to hire me, wanting to open consignment store in local area that does not have one, cannot afford it. have any suggestions? i am good with making a penny stretch but it cant stretch any further, its about to break and so am i! i need help getting small businesss started, have any suggestions?kelly young

  4. lynn says:

    I would have stopped or turned around right away. You never know the circumstances of people unless you ask and are willing to get involved. A similar situation occurred in the area I live in and a few friends and I followed these poor homeless people until we knew they were taken care of. Mostly , they just need a helping hand and we all have two of them and sometimes don’t put them to good use. Don’t deny yourself a blessing by being selfish.

  5. Rasmi says:

    Oh boy, I’m sorry. Sorry because I know how hard of a decsiion it can be, and you know what, I don’t think you’ll ever know what the right answer is. Well, basically, you know, but will you ever be totally happy with your decsiion? Maybe. Maybe in a week, or maybe in a year. I’m wanting a 3rd child but my husband is 100% NO. Like might as well give up hope. Every time I see newborn I totally crave another child! I feel complete in many ways, though, so maybe as moms and as women we’ll just always crave a little bit having another baby because it’s so the biggest part of our lives? But at the end of the day we should be thankful and count our blessings for what we do have, you know?

  6. R. Burt says:

    Dear Dr. Phil:
    I wanted to write to you using the Send Your Comments section of Dr.Phil.com but was excluded from doing so because of having the status of being “homeless’ and therefore do not have the required information of an address to fill in order to write to you.
    I have found this to be a common problem.
    Since you are supportive of people that need their own home, can you change this requirement on your information?
    Thank you

  7. Kim W says:

    Dr. Phil,
    My hope is that you could do a show on homelessness. Homelessness has touched my heart because my ex husband is homeless. He has suffered with depression along with addiction problems for his whole adult life. He is 48. I live in Ohio and he lives in Oregon now, since the divorce. He went there to follow his heart (ie change locations in hopes of new love and a new life). He’s lived in shelters and is currently living in his van. His situation is improving and I’ve given him money (not alot) and tried to help without contributing to his addiction. My concern is where he and others can go. Shelters are over populated and police make sure no one loiters too long anywhere. It just seems these people are forgotten by society and often harrassed. Families live on the streets. But by the grace of God I’m fortunate along with most that are reading this page and watching your show. I’ve read there are some cities, such as Portland that are considering opening ‘communities’ for the homeless. A place to park, restrooms and safety. It burdens my heart that some choose to live this way and others have no choice because of circumstance. Homeless pets are often treated better than human beings. Please give advice to your viewers on how to help and how to help families help people that are homeless. Please give advice to the homeless that truly want help and want to change their situation. Thank you.

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