The doctors walked right past him.
Are we conditioned to accept the distress of the vulnerable?
At the homeless services agency where I work in Los Angeles, our team sets out each day with one objective: find the people whose needs are most urgent and connect them to care. One of the many programs we offer is a multidisciplinary outreach team. This team includes a clinical social worker, an outreach strategy specialist, a case manager, a substance abuse specialist, and a nurse practitioner.
Over the last year, LA has seen hospitals at capacity, dwindling resources, and massive closures of places offering refuge or assistance, making homelessness as desperate an experience in our city as it has ever been.
One Monday in March our outreach team was driving by a hospital and noticed a man slumped over just outside the parking garage. They pulled over and approached to see if he was alright; perhaps he was just sleeping in an awkward position. Very quickly they realized he was unresponsive and in need of emergency medical services. They called an ambulance which promptly arrived and transported the man across the street to the ER.
Under normal circumstances, a team member follows the person into the hospital in order to advocate for them and assist with a discharge plan to ensure their care continues after they leave. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, however, this is understandably unallowed. These days, our team relies on the hospital’s social workers to advocate for those we bring to them for medical care and hope for the best.
This time, our outreach strategy specialist decided to call the social worker to see how the individual was doing. Our specialist explained that we had never seen this individual before—which is unusual, given our team’s deep familiarity with those in our designated area —and wanted to make sure that if he was released, we could connect with him.
The social worker gave a deep sigh.
The man, it turns out, was not experiencing homelessness. He had been a patient who was discharged the night before. It appears that on the way to his car, he suffered an aneurysm and collapsed. Over the course of the night, doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff saw the man and walked right past him.
What would cause any number of medical professionals to walk past someone in medical distress? While we can’t know the motivations of each passerby, it’s likely they saw the same thing as our outreach team: a person experiencing homelessness. But their response was different from the response of our outreach team, which leads me to wonder about who we think our neighbor is.
It’s hard not to think of the story of the Good Samaritan here. A familiar illustration to many, Jesus tells a mostly Jewish audience a story where reputable people walked right by a half-dead man in need of help, but the unexpected Samaritan stopped and provided aid. Jesus’s story is about who is a neighbor and what defines neighborliness.
As homeless populations in our large cities continue to swell, we are increasingly conditioned to accept the distress of someone experiencing homelessness as normal and acceptable. We distinguish between housed and unhoused people and determine how much compassion and care each group deserves. We come to believe that the poor and the sick may in fact deserve their fate. We cease to see them as neighbors, even if we see them more often than the person who actually lives “next door.”
Both stories—Jesus’s and mine—are about who our neighbor is and both highlight the ways our larger social constructs and machinations undermine life and impede mercy. We leave these stories realizing what we have lost and what we stand to still lose if we do not turn in a different direction.
In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson says, “Walking away from [the broken] or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” Our team saw a man who had an aneurysm in about the best place you could: in front of a hospital, in the path of doctors and nurses. He could have been any one of us, facing a sudden emergency as we go about our day. If the way we are dressed or the location of our emergency gives passersby the indication that we might be “just a homeless person,” might we be ignored, too? Our own humanity and well-being is directly tied to the humanity and well-being we attribute to the most vulnerable.
The man who had the aneurysm is okay now. He received care in time. Meanwhile, I pray that we confess the lies we have inherited, that tell us who is and who is not our neighbor. I hope that we learn the way of the powerless, show mercy to all those who need it, and leverage power in our communities to join with them in the struggle for life.
Cover image by Jon Tyson.