He Had A Name

As I read about the death of my friend, Deven Black, something stuck with me… and I couldn’t let go of it.

The headline read, “Homeless man dies…”

Not “Former teacher.” Not “Friend of many.” Not any other label that would have said more about the man who lived on this planet for 62 years.  Not “Deven Black.” There it was in stark contrast to the human being behind it. “Homeless man.” *

I wanted to scream, “HE HAD A NAME!”

I’m not just writing about this, because Deven was my friend. I’m writing this, because this is how people are labeled… as if there is nothing more descriptive about them when it comes to news. This is how we describe human beings.

I’m not going into detail about what happened to Deven in the last few years. That’s not my story to share. What I will say is that I know Deven had a mental illness. That some of the things that happened – or things that he did – were not characteristic of the Deven I knew. Mental illness does that. It takes away the person – the husband, the father, the friend, the professional – and turns him into someone else. Sometimes, that person is barely recognizable to those who knew him best.

As I’m writing this, so many other people… people with names… come to mind. I doubt there’s a single person reading this who hasn’t had some experience with mental illness in their circle of friends, family, or acquaintances. Maybe you, dear reader, have fought your own battle with those demons. I don’t know.

What I do know is that our nation treats people with mental illnesses abominably… like it’s their fault. As if they could just will themselves to be better. “If you try hard enough, you can NOT be mentally ill.” No one would say that to someone going through another type of illness, most especially a terminal illness. And mental illness can be just that – a terminal illness – if it’s not treated properly.

Mental health care is expensive. If you don’t have the money, your mental illness does not get treated. We have basically doomed a very large percentage of our country who cannot afford the proper mental health care. Those people – people with names –  many of whom are living in poverty, have little to no chance of living with a mental illness.

In Deven’s case, someone else’s mental illness was the cause of Deven’s death. I don’t want to go into that right now. I can’t go into that right now. The system failed that young man, too.

What I do want to think about is why Deven was in a homeless shelter in the first place. How someone who fell through the cracks in the system had no other options but to be in a homeless shelter… that’s what I can’t let go of. I can’t let go of the fact that so many people who are living on our streets in this country are not there by choice. And that many of us look the other way and “comfort” ourselves by thinking that their “bad choices are what caused them to be there, so really… what can I do? If they would just try harder and make better choices, they wouldn’t be in that situation.”

It’s really easy to look the other way when you assign blame to someone else… then you don’t have to do anything.

Deven isn’t the only person who becomes a statistic. There are others who suffer every day. People with names. This is someone’s child. And now… that person is another nameless statistic. These statistics are staggering… and if you’re living in poverty and a person of color, the statistics are worse. 

The “solution” for many who are homeless is prison. I’ve heard politicians say, “Well, at least they’re getting the health care they need now.” Really? That’s the best we can do??

We have to speak up. We have to tell our government leaders that we can do better… that we must do better. How many others like Deven have simply disappeared? People who have so much to give to the world around them. If we raise our collective voices, we can’t be ignored. When a significant percentage of our population is affected, we can’t turn around and ignore them. Use your voice. Tell your representatives that this is unacceptable. Those of us who are able must speak up for those who are not.

It’s ironic that Deven died on the day Canadians were tweeting with #belltalks – Mental Health issues were being discussed all across their nation. Their national and local leaders were involved. That’s a start for people who are often ignored and forgotten.

Speak up. Be loud. We can’t afford to forget those who are ignored. We can’t afford to forget their names.

His name was Deven, and he was my friend. I’m not going to forget him.


*A couple of articles later updated their headlines to say, “Homeless ex-teacher.” I’m not sure it’s any better, and I’m not linking to them.