The True Cost of Freedom

This week I saw two news stories that seem totally unrelated. I'm sad to say they are not. Read on, then think about it.

In Iowa City, a man named Sonny Iovino died on November 7th at the age of 55. Two days earlier the police had found this Vietnam-era veteran lying on the ground, trying to dig himself into a mulched garden near a heating exhaust vent. He was lightly dressed, confused, incoherent and barefoot. Police officers convinced him to put on his shoes and leave the property on which he was trespassing.

After two more calls the same day that found Iovino in various states of undress, police finally took him to see a psychiatrist at the VA Medical Center.

Iovino asked the psychiatrist for medication, but the doctor said he first needed an evaluation. When the doctor asked to take his vital signs, Iovino made what reports called an inappropriate comment. "I take that as a no," UI Police Officer Alton Poole reported the doctor as saying. The doctor released Iovino back to police.

A blood-alcohol test showed Iovino hadn't been drinking, but a medical center social worker said Iowa City's Shelter House wouldn't take him in his condition, reports showed.

The officers arrested Iovino and took him to jail, but deputies there wouldn't take him either. Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek told The Gazette the jail won't admit anyone with an immediate medical need. He said the doctor's note indicated Iovino needed hospitalization for mental illness.

Police cited Iovino for criminal trespass and released him with notice to show up for court on Nov. 20. He signed the charge and left the jail, walking south along Court Street — toward the Benton Street bridge, the reports said. [source]

Two days later Iovino was found under that same bridge, dead of hypothermia.

In the area where I work - which is not at all poor - it's common to see people standing on street corners, holding little signs saying they need money. For a long time I ignored them, other than to make sure my car doors were locked if one of them got too close. Lazy bums, I would think to myself. Why don't they get a job?

A year or two ago I heard a news story where the disguised reporter stood at an off-ramp just to see how much money he could collect. It wasn't much - a few dollars a day. Why would anyone in his right mind do it, then? The answer is these people aren't in their right mind. Most are mentally ill. You can't tell from behind the glass of your comfortably cooled or heated vehicle, but even if someone hired them it's doubtful they could stay employed for long. Years ago they would have been safely institutionalized. Now we abandon them to life on the streets.

So I changed my policy. If I can do it without creating a traffic hazard, I roll down the window and give them whatever spare change I have. Won't they just use it to buy drugs or booze? Probably. But maybe not. If there is any chance I can make a difference for someone in need, shouldn't I try?

Often I give them some money and then feel sad and inadequate. I wonder if I'm just assuaging my own guilt. The fact is I could do a lot more, and I don't. But if I do nothing I feel even worse. If I drive past one of those corners and the "regulars" I've come to recognize aren't standing there, I worry what might have happened to them. If the goal is to make yourself feel good, this isn't the way to do it.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to ask why the VA physician wouldn't treat Sonny Iovino, why he couldn't get into a shelter, and why the laws prevented people from helping him unless he wanted it. All are good questions, but answering them now won't help Sonny. We as a society decided that the most important thing was that he have his freedom; never mind that he was incapable of knowing what to do with it.

The rest of us have freedom, too. How do we use it? That brings up the other news story I saw this week. In Mesquite, Texas, a mall opened at 1:00 AM on the the Friday after Thanksgiving to begin the annual consumer spending season. Who would get up at such an hour just to go shopping? Plenty of people, apparently. Watch this video (via Rod) for images of what rampant materialism does to otherwise sane Americans.

How many folks are willing to go out at 1:00 on a cold winter night and bring a little cheer to the people shivering under bridges? Not so many. How many would take 10% of what they spent at the mall that night and give it to people who don't get to go shopping? Again, not many. It's hard to blame them. Guys like Sonny Iovino aren't fun to be around. He was dirty, belligerent, and probably didn't smell very good. You know what else he was? He was a man, created in the image and likeness of God. He was, in that way if no other, like us.

There are people like Sonny Iovino in my city, and in yours. We all have a choice. We can pretend they don't exist. We can assume someone else will help them. We can return to our comfortable homes. Or we can remember what the God who created Sonny, and the rest of us, promised: ...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has an editorial about Sonny Iovino's death. Read it here.

Related Posts:
Too Many Barns
Pampering The Pooches
Millionaires Everywhere
Real Charity
Making A Difference
Dressed For Success

External Links:
Mobile Loaves & Fishes
Salvation Army
Treatment Advocacy Center

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