John is a lovely man. Most people probably just judge him at a distance without ever knowing his heartbreaking backstory.
While walking down the street in Great Falls, Montana, I happened to see a man across the street who I thought may be homeless. I just wasn’t sure. Most homeless people you’d never know they are homeless, and in rural communities, it can even harder to determine if a person is homeless.
It was the backpack that seemed out of place for a housed person. Normal adults can buy any backpack they want probably would not have a bright orange children’s backpack. For a homeless person, anything that will carry belonging works.
I crossed the street and asked my new friend if he wanted socks. John and I started to talk. He really liked the name Invisible People, and he started telling me his compelling story of surviving abuse and mental illness.
As a rule, we never feature homeless people with severe mental illness. Not because of any legal issues but because I respect people. If a person is not of right mind having a psychotic episode of some kind, they should not be on YouTube. Because of how mental illness affects homelessness is such an important topic, it’s a conversation that needs to be shared. If the person is high-functioning and fully aware of Invisible People’s work and being on YouTube, then they can make a conscious decision.
John’s mother tried to drown him before he was five-years-old. John’s grandparents then took him. His grandfather severely beat John until he was 14 when he decided to leave. John has been in and out of homelessness and institutions ever since.
John suffers from panic attacks, PTSD, and what he describes as multiple personality disorder. Do survive the beatings, John developed what he calls “alternates” which was his defense mechanism as a child.
My heart breaks for John but I am grateful he had the courage to share his story. Most people just look at the homeless person as a drug addict without ever considering that drugs and alcohol may be a way of coping with childhood trauma.
I have interviewed close to a thousand homeless people. This is the first time anyone has broken down when I asked if they had three wishes. I know some people recently have been critical of me asking that question. To be candid, I almost didn’t post this video because I didn’t want to deal with the drama, but John’s story is important. People need to hear the truth about homelessness and mental illness.
The three wishes question is important because it helps humanize homelessness. No one either homeless or housed has had a problem with it except every now and then someone comments they don’t like it. I am highly empathetic. I can literally feel other peoples pain. This interview with John has taught me that I do need to be more sensitive, and in interviews like this, I will stop asking the three wishes question.
Just so you know, I do a lot behind the scenes before and after interviews. Many of the homeless people connect with me online or in our support group. I did not just leave John on the street. We hung out for some time after I stopped recording. I wanted to make sure he was OK. I walked with John as he headed to the Salvation Army to get food. John is a good man who had a rough childhood. It’s not his fault that he is homeless but it’s our fault that he has lived his adult life in and out of the system!