News Obliteration Drunks
posted by December 5 at 10:27 AMon
Check out this story in today’s Seattle Times. It seems the county has discovered that being homeless can severely shorten your life expectancy. Homelessness also throws up a lot of “barriers to early and preventive health care.” No shit. Not having a place to live, any health insurance or money, and no means of transportation can really screw up a person’s health care regimen. How much did we spend on this study?
Now before I go all Sound Politics on your asses, let me say that I’m good lefty liberal on this issue. I’m for services for the homeless—for lots of services, and for lots of reasons. My son’s mother was a homeless street punk, and I know from homelessness. But I have an issue with the dangerously high levels of credulous liberal guilt slopping around in Warren King’s piece in today’s Seattle Times.
Here’s the headline:
94 deaths of homeless people highlight lack of care
And here’s the guilt…
“Like previous studies of homeless deaths, the causes … continue to reflect the harsh realities and risks faced by those who live on the streets and in shelters — chronic health conditions, traumas and the troubling role of alcohol and drugs,” the report said.
King County has about 8,000 homeless people. Public Health nurses and substance-abuse experts seek them out in shelters and on the streets to try to steer them toward care at community health clinics and at Harborview Medical Center.
But other factors get in the way, including mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and a lack of transportation to the clinics, Wilson said.
“They all cause delays in care,” she said. “It can be very challenging.”
Only about one-third of the King County homeless people who died in 2005 had seen a health-care provider during the year, the report said.
The role that substance abuse plays in the deaths of the homeless is not downplayed; however, the gist of the piece seems to be this: If there were only more services, if we would only spend more money, if only there wasn’t such a “lack of care” around here, we could have saved the lives 94 homeless people who died in King County last year. If there were only more clinics or more transportation options or more money, all those dead homeless people would have lived to a ripe old age.
Again, I’m for services for the homeless. But let’s not delude ourselves. Of the 94 deaths in King County last year, only one was from exposure to the elements (hypothermia). The largest single killer of the homeless was was alcohol abuse (30 deaths), another six deaths were attributed to substance abuse, and many of the other reported deaths involved booze or likely involved booze: cirrhosis of the liver (2 deaths), accidents (10 deaths), cardiovascular disease (14 deaths). And, hey, what were the blood-alcohol levels in the person who died of hypothermia?
What the report and King’s story fail to acknowledge is the fact that many of the homeless who died last year had been trying to kill themselves, probably for years, but only finally managed to succeed in 2005.
Reading King’s piece reminded me of this bit of sober-minded analysis by longtime Stranger contributer Sean Nelson:
But what few are willing to accept is that no matter how many shelters or social programs are put in place to help the diseased, there is a particular strain of the disease that defies help. Not resists—all alcoholics resist being helped—defies. And as any successful recovering alcoholic (or anyone who has known an unsuccessful one) will tell you, the only way a person can stop drinking is to want to. People who don’t want to can’t be helped. Period.
Trying to help an obliteration drunk isn’t like trying to save a person from drowning, it’s like trying to save an anchor from drowning. Many of the causes may be socioeconomic, and the condition is certainly compounded by the brutal inertia of street life, but the fundamental problem is a personal one; it only becomes a social problem when the numbers start to swell, as they will in times of recession. The issue transcends class, for while the drunks occupy the economy’s lowest layer, not all of them came from there. It transcends race, though the most visible sufferers are ethnic minorities. And it transcends social programs, though those programs are often the only things keeping the drunks alive. But as we’ve seen, the shelters and hygiene centers, soup kitchens and street ministries are little more than stopgaps between bottles. Despite the large Christian influence on the social-assistance front, the phrase “past praying for” comes to mind.
This is why the city’s attempts to “do something about the drunks” can never be more than a finger in the dike; certain desires can’t be governed. The drunks, despite their pathos, are in fact acting out a right more fundamental than life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness: the right to destroy themselves. For many, it’s the only act of will they can muster. No amount of legislation, charity, conservative menace, or liberal concern can stand in the way of a drunk with a death wish.
The gist of King’s piece, the county’s study, and that headline in particular is this: Society somehow failed these 94 people. Well yes, some of them probably. But not even half. But the fact that a certain number of street drunks with death wishes manage to off themselves every year is not an indictment of our society. We need to provide services (we do provide services), we need public health officials working on the problem, and we need to make sure there’s help out there so that the street drunks who want help can get help. We need to save the lives we can.
But we need not pretend that we can save every life, that it’s just a matter of more money and more services and more nurses and more transportation options.
We have to recognize that there are limits—limits to what we can spend, and limits to the good it will do. Even with unlimited budgets and endless stream of resources, there will still be homeless people drinking themselves to death on the streets. And we have to recognize some of these death—many of them, perhaps most—for what they are: suicides.