Community Voices

At Home with the Homeless: Ending the stigmatization of LGBTQ+, homeless, and mentally disordered people

In a New York City subway car on May 1, a Marine Corps veteran named Daniel Penny put a homeless man named Jordan Peely into a chokehold for three minutes, cutting off oxygen to his brain and ending his life. Passengers on the train stated that Mr. Peely had acted aggressively toward them and appeared mentally ill.

One witness, who videoed the incident, stated that Mr. Peely said, “I don’t have food. I don’t have a drink. I’m fed up… I’m tired already. I don’t care if I go to jail and get locked up. I’m ready to die.” This singular incident, a needless death, is yet another reminder that it’s past time to address the other stereotypes, namely the ones regarding LGBTQ+, the homeless, and the mentally ill.

The father of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, observed in his seminal text Science and Sanity that stereotypes are illogical and unprovable. One cannot say, “All X are Y,” or even attempt to modify that statement by saying, “All X are Y, except for my friend Z.” When speaking of a group of human beings, one can only speak of individuals within that group. No group is so homogenous that any one standard can be applied to all. So what happens to humor? What if someone refers to Mexicans as lazy, Asians as lousy drivers, Jewish people as penurious, the Scots as miserly, and the Irish as drunks?

Most Americans are worldly enough to know that these stereotypes are broad and inaccurate. As someone with Scots-Irish ancestry, I can take or leave most jokes about being a miser or a drunkard. And some of them do make me laugh. But some groups have been punched down for too long for it to be funny.

Stereotypes of LGBTQ+ behavior are still fairly commonplace. And this notion that teenagers and young adults are transitioning because it’s a fad is insulting and disgusting–as if assessing one’s gender identity and the life-changing effects of transitioning could be grouped with swallowing goldfish, streaking, or pouring cold water over your head. And it completely overlooks the incalculable costs to individuals and society if transitioning is stigmatized or sabotaged. Cold, hard fact: LGBTQ+ teens are much more likely to commit suicide or have mental issues resulting from their gender identities.

A survey conducted last year by The Trevor Project found that nearly half of young people identifying as LGBTQ have seriously considered suicide. In short, nothing to laugh at here.

The unhoused generally break down into four types: those who have no desire to work or cooperate; those who want to work and live independently but are broke; those who want to work and live independently but are broken; those who want to work and live independently but are broke and broken. All of these groups except the first can be worked with. And most of us, when we are rational and in treatment, genuinely want help–to quote the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, “all I can get.”

Those who want to dismiss the homeless are quick to point out their deficits, focusing on those whose physical and mental hygiene are subpar, persons like the late Jordan Peely, whose aggressive behavior can frighten those unfamiliar with mental disorders and their criteria for diagnosis. You can’t expect the average person to become an authority on such disorders and their treatment modalities. There are many non-lethal ways to subdue people.

The NY medical examiner’s autopsy determined that Mr. Peely’s cause of death was compression of the neck. When Mr. Penny applied his chokehold, he did so with such force that Mr. Peely could not breathe, which meant almost no oxygen was reaching his brain. He was unconscious and brain-dead within minutes. No one thought to grab Mr. Peely’s arms and legs until help could arrive. No one realized that simply sitting on him would have subdued him. In short, brute force was the only method put to use. The result: a fatality. A life that could have been spared, a patient that could have received life-changing mental and physical health treatment.

“But he was yelling! He was acting aggressively! He could have attacked people! He was suicidal!” None of that is contested. It is all a matter of record. But so is this: If the average citizen knew more about mental disorders and non-lethal methods of subduing suspects, Jordan Peely need not have died. He probably would, at this moment, be receiving treatment to deal with his mental disorders. Another needless death would have been prevented. But as the New York Intelligencer headline said, Jordan Peely was already dead. He was a blur, a nonentity for the people who saw him daily until he had enough and screamed out for help. For food. For drink.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.” That is the lesson that we still have to learn.

Better days are coming… if we work for them.