Friday, August 17, 2007

Star of stage, screen, and skid row

Sounds like Hollywood is poised to make another heartwarming movie about someone with mental illness who overcomes the odds. Jamie Foxx is set to play the part of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who "like 1% of the population has schizophrenia, sleeps on the sidewalk on skid row. His misfortune is to have the one disease for which there's no poster child, let alone a national telethon."

That quote comes from Steve Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times who has been chronicling Nathanial's life. He has pulled his observations together into a book, which will be the basis for the movie starring Foxx.

Nathanial's family, according to Lopez, couldn't get him to stay in treatment.

As do so many schizophrenics, [his sister] Ayers-Moore says, her brother would improve with medication but then refuse to take it and slip back into his tortured

On October 23, 2005, Lopez noted:

Nathaniel is too sick to know he's sick, so he resists treatment that might give him a shot at a better life, and I now understand the frustration of hundreds of families that have told me in agonizing detail of similar dilemmas.

Lopez wasn't content to write about Nathanial - he wanted to help him. And to get others to help him. And he did. In fact, the time and energy put in by so many at Lopez' behest to help Nathanial is beyond touching.

Yet the effort seemed to shift from rescue to rehabilitation - if we can only get Nathanial to trust us and choose housing, the message became, we can save him. After a full year of engaging him, the experts assessed that he was "close" to moving into the apartment they had secured, and furnished, for him.

Another year on the streets.

What eventually happened to Nathanial will likely make a moving and interesting film. But it should also make us angry.

It took 30 years of homelessness, a background as a world-class musician, and the rapt attention of a renown LA Times columnist to get Nathanial moving along the path - not to treatment, but to possibly, someday, getting treatment. Even then, the goal was to help Nathaniel finally choose housing as a first step to get back some of what he lost in the last 30 years.

At one point in the real-life drama, Lopez asked the prescient question, "With treatment, who knows what he could be capable of?"

Indeed. It is certain Hollywood will slap a happy ending on this story. Expect to see Nathanial at the premiere and for everyone to feel good about lifting this man back up.

Will that make up for society completely neglecting to help him for three decades?

Or make a difference to the thousands like him who still sit on skid row?

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