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Brother, Where Art Thou?

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Brother, Where Art Thou?

By Gina Riner

It was a weekday afternoon in downtown San Rafael, years and years ago, and my mother, a petite auburn-haired woman marched briskly out of the psychiatrist’s office and breathlessly shouted out to me, “He said your brother shows signs of mental illness and will probably be in institutions for the rest of his life!” Many questions tore at my heart: What? Is he sure? Why? How could this doctor make such a dire prediction? My brother, the youngest of my parents’ seven children, was 13 years old at the time. A gregarious and kind-hearted child, he wore thick glasses and was small for his age. With his warm brown eyes, sunny disposition and impish smile, he made friends with people of all ages. It hardly seemed possible that his future would have such a dark outlook. 

During the early part of my parents’ marriage my father served in the Air Force. When he came home from the Korean War, our family moved to Marin County from San Francisco. Our neighbors were middle class. We lived in a decent house. 

Dad never seemed quite right after his time in the military, though. He was personable, smart and a creative type yet he couldn’t hold a steady job. He was obsessed with reading about World War II and Hitler. Sometimes he delivered newspapers or drove a taxi. His erratic moods multiplied. Over the years his most loyal friend was Schmirnoff vodka.

My mother worked full-time as a secretary at an import/export company. She attended college at night, and on the weekends studied diligently so she could complete her bachelor’s degree. She was the primary breadwinner and wanted a better economic life for her family. 

Dad didn’t set out to destroy his family but his mental health issues overwhelmed him, and for my youngest brother, there was no avoiding his influence. In his early teens he started drinking and cutting classes. Juvenile Hall was home away from home. My brother didn’t graduate from high school. With a mother rarely home and a father who drank, the chips were stacked against him.

Over the last 35 years, if my brother wasn’t in jail for being drunk in public or driving drunk on a bicycle, he lived in a halfway house. Or he would be homeless. Often times he would neglect to take his medicine, then he would start drinking again which never led to anything good.

The convictions piled up. 

Although he was a non-violent offender, my brother was sentenced to three years at San Quentin State Prison for multiple alcohol offenses. On the day he was released from prison he said he was committed to his sobriety. He didn’t want to ever go to jail again or be homeless. He worked hard and frequently helped others as he set about making a new life for himself--then his life would get off track once again. Being predisposed to alcoholism and mental illness, and not having enough education or support, has kept him in a cycle of despair, poverty and homelessness ever since. No one in my family has heard from my brother since Christmas when he was living under a bridge near the Sacramento River. Brother, where art thou? 

The homeless, especially the chronically homeless like my brother, need our help and commitment. They need to know they matter. That we are not going to give up on them. And we need to understand first before we judge another, before we ignore a homeless person or tell them to “just clean yourself up and get a job.” Homelessness is much more complicated than that as evidenced by my brother’s life. There are a myriad of reasons which lead to homelessness and it is a complex issue not to be solved (it will never be “solved”) but managed, with compassion, empathy and true caring of human beings less fortunate than us.

Government can do only so much to address homelessness. It is up to us as a community to help the homeless. I believe we are our brother’s keepers. I believe there is always hope and possibility for transformation. 

If you’re wondering what you can do to help the homeless or want to understand more about homelessness, I urge you to contact North Sonoma County Services, a non-profit that exists to address those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Visit them on Facebook or at NorthSonomaCountyServices.com.