At any given time, there may be a few hundred homeless people in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, huddling under the overpasses from the persistent Washington rain. It’s a familiar place for Geraldine, who has spent the past 20 years caring for her 38-year-old son, who is mentally ill.
When her son is not in prison or in hospital, Geraldine, 64, makes daily visits to a three-block area to bring him food, drink and warm clothing. She knows the color of his sleeping bag, and seeks it out among the dozens of others in between the shopping carts and trash bags. Sometimes he rejects her help. Other times, he gives her gifts to other people on the street.
Often, her son has lost more weight, and his hair is more unkempt. His eyes look distant and strained.
These days, however, instead of going to Pioneer Square, Geraldine makes a weekly trip to a psychiatric hospital, where her son is being treated for schizophrenia.
It’s the longest Geraldine’s son has been stably housed since his initial diagnosis nearly 20 years ago, but she’s afraid he will end up back on the streets, in prison, or dead – because of the lack of safe, long-term housing available to people with severe mental illness.
"It’s all-consuming. I think about it all the time, even when I’m doing things I enjoy,” Geraldine told the Guardian. “Then I think about him and how he is living.”
Ever since her son disappeared from home as a teenager, he has ping-ponged through jails, homeless shelters, halfway houses and the streets, and Geraldine has spent that time working to find him a safe place.
She emails, calls and meets advocates, politicians and administrators on her son’s behalf. She is not comfortable providing her surname – her complaints within the system have caused her to be a recognized name, and she is afraid those complaints will affect her son’s chances to receive adequate care. She also asked that her son not be named.
Geraldine, who has two other children, believes stable housing is the only way her son can manage his schizophrenia and lead a safe, healthy life. Despite being her son’s primary caregiver, Geraldine doesn’t have the resources to provide him with the so-called “supportive housing” she believes he needs, and which, research shows, could keep him from returning to jail or the emergency room.