Dr. Robert Okin, former chief of psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital, spent two years meeting and photographing mentally ill people who live on the streets of San Francisco. It was an enlightening and emotional journey.
“Getting to know them as human beings, I came to feel a kind of empathy. I wasn’t expecting a kind of inexplicable feeling – that with all my opportunities, with my intellectual and financial foundation, I felt like I could become homeless,” says Okin, who detailed his experience in a unique and evocative new book, “Silent Voices.”
“The line between me and them really began to erode in the course of this project,” adds Okin, who will talk about the book at the San Francisco Public Library on Tuesday.
Even though he treated homeless patients who were admitted to the hospital, Okin says he often wondered about nitty-gritty of their lives, and how they managed to survive the harshness of the streets. He wanted to know about their joys and frustrations, and “what they did when they needed to pee and there was nowhere to go.” Their stories are sad. “Everybody I met had a bad childhood,” says Okin.
More than 40 people are profiled, from Mary, a gentle weeping lady in front of library who said, “I used to live in a home. Now I live in a cardboard box,” to the intense and delusional David, who loudly told Okin, “The angels of suffering are screeching at me.”
Some days, Okin felt exhausted and drained. But others, he was pleased to earn their trust, and sometimes help them. He helped one lonely man get a kitten from a shelter; several months later, the man stopped his 10-year drug habit.
About 70 percent of those Okin approached agreed to talk to him and be photographed. Only one was violent – he threw an apple at Okin, but later apologized. At first, Okin’s goal in writing the book simply was to destigmatize these people who have been outcast from society. But later, he realized he needed to try to change public attitudes, which could be reflected at the ballot box.
“We know what to do to solve the homeless population. It is not rocket science,” Okin says, pointing to success in Salt Lake City, where money and resources have provided for case managers who are not overworked, supported housing with onsite assistance, and employment – even as minimal pushing a broom for half-hour a day – because all people need a sense of purpose.
IF YOU GO
Dr. Robert Okin
Where: Latino/Hispanic Rooms A-B, Main Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday (Oct 21)
Contact: (415) 557-4400, www.sfpl.org
Silent Voices: People With Mental Disorders on the Street
Written by: Dr. Robert Okin
Published by: Golden Pine Press
Pages: 232 Price: $19.95