Light At The End Of The Tunnel

The major newspapers always need a bit of file fluff to fill up the holiday editions. The New York Times chose to run a story about Johnny Five by Manny Fernandez on Christmas Eve.

In a city of lights, Johnny Five lives in the dark. He calls his home a cave, but it is really a kind of dungeon, deep in the crevices below an abandoned train station in the Bronx.
He has been bitten by bedbugs. A mysterious gray goo clings to the walls. His air shafts are holes the size of a fist. It is stiflingly hot in summer and so cold in winter that a quart of milk freezes in 15 minutes.

He loves it here.

He hates it here.

According to the story John Carbone, called Johnny Five after the robot in the 1986 movie Short Circuit, is in the traditional sense homeless. He doesn’t have a heated apartment, a house or a room. But he does have a place he considers home, an urban cave under a train station.

The accompanying video, obviously filmed during the summer, is well worth spending the 6 minutes watching. It shows the juxtaposition between addiction, homelessness and honesty. It describes Johnny’s place in society. It shows him straddling two worlds. The literally dark, dank world of the homeless and the world of understanding and help. Perhaps his last major human contact is Sister Lauria Fitzgerald, a Catholic nun who has spent twenty years working in the Bronx helping the homeless. She uses Johnny to run errands, help distribute sleeping bags and food to others; she also would like to get him out of his cave.

But I think the demons chasing Johnny will not allow him to accept ‘help’ in the traditional sense. That’s what makes policies attempting to outlaw helping the homeless outside of ‘official’ channels, policies like those in Las Vegas and Orlando, worse than useless. Even though the Las Vegas law was ruled unconstitutional, bans on inofficial are spreading.

But as opposed to the neo-con, Social Darwinist theories, forcing people to ‘buck up’ and ‘fly right’ just isn’t going to solve the issue. As I see it the problem is the people. People who don’t fit. Who hide from life, both hating themselves and the people around them. They do run from their problems, fleeing into the brief comfort provided by substances or faith. Unfortunately, these people, many with limited education and spotty employment records, are no longer acceptable for the kinds of jobs that would have been available even twenty years ago. The number of low income jobs is slowly being eliminated. As the gap between the rich/upper middle class and the lower income brackets widens, only a spotless record will give someone a stable job.

But even that analysis assumes that the person is stable enough to hold the job; stable enough to take medication to treat schizophrenia or borderline disorders; stable enough to overcome the addictions that have taken hold in their lives. It also assumes that the job would pay enough to keep the person clothed, fed and housed and perhaps on the medication necessary to achieve medication. A problem increasingly difficult in today’s society.

But there is hope. Johnny Five is homeless, he smokes crack and is self admittedly schizophrenic. He hears voices, both real and ‘imagined’ but he also raps the Lords prayer. Sister Lauria understands his faith. She also trusts Johnny. But despite years of pleading, she was never able to convince him. Until recently.

Several months ago, Johnny told Sister Lauria he wanted out of the cave. He wanted her to help him find housing. She said it was the first time in the eight years she has known him that he expressed any interest in leaving the cave for good. Before, she said, he would never consider it, despite her begging.

Johnny said he was simply tired. “Old age caught me like a thief in the night,” he said. “My body is not the same.”

Maybe Johnny’s body will finally bring him in from the cold. Maybe he will be able accept and afford the help he needs. Maybe he will have spent his last Christmas in a cave.

I hope for his sake there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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