One Seattle chaplain's story of homelessness

A chaplain whose pioneering work to end homelessness is recognized worldwide shares the story of encountering the limits of the city's mental health system.
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A chaplain whose pioneering work to end homelessness is recognized worldwide shares the story of encountering the limits of the city's mental health system.

Pilgrim Church in Seattle has a chapel with a small courtyard opening through an archway onto a side street, and one morning as I was passing by on my way into the building, I noticed four bags of garbage, one at each corner of the courtyard. At the doorway to the chapel itself, protected from the rain, a man was sleeping. He awoke and raised his head as I approached. I said my name was Craig and that I was the pastor. He told me he was a baker and that he spent the nights baking bread for the whole city. He shot constant glances over my shoulder, his eyes scanning the courtyard. He said there was a great evil in the world; he had put the bags of garbage out to protect himself and the church. I moved closer and crouched down to listen more carefully.

"The evil goes to what it knows," he said.

I asked his name.

"Sterling Hayden," he said, "the actor." He was referring to the movie star whose career had peaked in the 1950s, some twenty years earlier.

It was November, a season of ever-colder weather, but Sterling continued to sleep in the chapel courtyard, exposed to the night air. Each morning for a week I found him there, bags of garbage carefully set out around him to ward off the evil. Each morning we talked a little. Each morning the custodian carefully removed the garbage to the Dumpster. Each evening Sterling rebuilt his surround of safety. One morning as we sat side by side on the steps leading from the street to the courtyard, a steady downpour began. I invited him inside. We climbed the stairs of the parish house to my study, a room with an old rolltop desk and a simple sitting area with comfortable chairs. Sterling confided to me how worried he was. Unnameable threats hovered about him. He lapsed into silence, an inner world of terror showing through frightened eyes.

What I first saw in Sterling was his "illness self": the homeless man, his strange sense of identity, his terrible fright, his unusual attempts to create safety. As we sat together over the course of that week, there were also brief and fleeting moments of ordinary conversation and health. He asked for a drink of water. He gently touched a small green plant growing on the windowsill.

On his last night with us, Sterling placed large amounts of toxics around the courtyard. The next morning, in one corner we found a box of used motor-oil cans and dirty rags scavenged from a gas station. In another corner was a five-gallon bucket of old cooking grease hauled from the alley behind a nearby restaurant. In a third corner was a bag of half-filled bottles and spray cans of cleansers. In the fourth corner sat a carton of empty containers that once held paint thinner, shellac, and wood stain. These materials were the only protection Sterling could devise.

When I saw Sterling's volatile collection in the courtyard, I talked with him about going to the hospital. I said he might find safety and care there. The hospital, I told him, protected people from disease and infection. They had good security and staff on duty day and night, help that we didn't have at the church. I told him there was a team that could come and help him. To my relief, he was willing.

I called King County Mental Health Crisis and Commitment Services, and was told that county-designated mental health professionals (MHPs) would be dispatched promptly. Sterling and I waited in my office, and after about thirty minutes two men arrived. They listened to Sterling's frightened and confused story. The MHPs agreed that he needed help and should be in the hospital.

Sterling relaxed a little. "Can we go now?" he asked. "Will you take me?"

The MHPs looked at each other, then at me, and then at Sterling. "Sterling," one of them said, "we can't do that. We can only take people to the hospital if they don't want to go."

Sterling looked crushed, and I was incredulous.

"He wants to go," I said. "Why can't you take him?"

"Sterling is a voluntary patient," one of the MHPs replied. "We can only arrange transportation for involuntary patients, people we're committing to the hospital against their will."

I shook my head. This was absurd.

Before I could put together a question about what we could do, Sterling shouted at me, "You said these people would help!" and dashed out of the room.

"Sterling, wait!" I called. I wanted to ask the MHPs if I could take him, and to which hospital, and whom we should talk to. I hadn't a clue how to get someone into a psychiatric unit in Seattle.

Sterling bolted down the stairs and out the back door. I assumed he would head for his haven in the chapel courtyard, and so before pursuing him I hurriedly got some suggestions from the MHPs. After they left, I went to look for Sterling. He wasn't in the courtyard. I looked on Broadway, the street in front of the church, and in the nearby neighborhood, but he had vanished.

I watched for him over the next several days, but he never returned.

Just before Thanksgiving, several weeks after Sterling disappeared, I was reading The Seattle Times. At the bottom of a back-page column was a paragraph of filler. A transient had been found under a viaduct downtown, dead from exposure. His name was Sterling Hayden.

Reprinted from Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets by Craig Rennebohm with David Paul, by permission of Beacon Press.  

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