November 18, 2015 by The Jailhouse Doc
I have a patient who is genuinely in jail because she is homeless.
Let’s just add her story to the stack of WTF stories that I collect in a very angry and bewildered corner of my brain. I think that’s why her positive attitude and sweet disposition blew me away so much. She’d obviously made mistakes in the past, but what kills me the most is when people who exhaust every option trying to “do right” are offered no mercy, no credit for their efforts, no consideration for their struggles. I suppose the system cannot feel, despite being made up of real live people- it trudges on like a droid, dismantling lives in its wake. Lives like hers.
So she had a history of drug use which probably got her into the system to begin with. Because she’s from out of state, she has no other family around for support, especially once her mother moved across country. She is trying to get her life together, trying to stay off drugs, but because of parole stipulations, she can’t leave the district, even to live with relatives. She must find a place to live within the district, and submit an address to her officer. Going from friend to friend, she asks for housing. But even those who would be willing to put her up can’t. You see, parole officers coming round to check on her is bad news for the rest of the folks living there, most of whom are using also. So, rather than risk drawing attention to the house, she is rejected. She can prostitute herself for a place to stay and drugs to forget it all, but that won’t help her legal situation. You might think that surely staying at the homeless shelter is a safe and sufficient place for her to be. Services, food, warmth. But you would be wrong. Because her parole officer needs an ADDRESS, with a PHONE NUMBER. The shelter is not sufficient. Because she is destitute with nowhere to go, she is in violation of parole. So back to jail her officer sends her. You know, just following protocol, Ma’am.
She hopes to get into the drug treatment program, because then, MAYBE then, after months of the program, she might qualify for the halfway house, which would be satisfy her parole release, and she could try again. So she could be out. Right now. Getting a job. Getting education. Going to church. Making healthy friends. But she’s not. All because she has nowhere but the shelter.
She sits there, smiling at me, hopeful, staying positive.
I’m furious, of course. Wondering why she isn’t furious. But, many of my patients ARE, and it also gets them nowhere.
So I shake my head, and offer what feels to me an entirely insufficient “I’m SO sorry this happened to you.”
And I wonder at how we can feel like we’re doing our “best” for these men and women.