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Compassion, Not Pity, for 'Street People'

February 09, 1985

Nearly three months ago (Editorial Pages, Nov. 11), you published my article about Sally, the elderly lady who lived at the bus stop outside our church for about 80 nights. The story ended with the dual question: "Will her human dignity ever be restored? And will we, her brothers and sisters, ever recover ours?" Due to widespread attention given to this one, symbolic poor person (through The Times and the many other papers that also ran the article), I trust that many people have become more sensitized to the plight of the unfortunate. Even more significantly, I trust that many hearts have let active compassion take the place of pity and disdain, in regard to such "street people."

Because of the many responses I received from far-reaching parts of the country, as well as from the Los Angeles area, I would like to summarize briefly the present status of "the lady in plastic." It is a joyous sequel.

The night after Thanksgiving, she left the street corner for the corner of a nearby front porch. Her physical and mental health deteriorated in spite of her friendly neighbors' attempts to feed her and keep her body clean. She stopped eating and drinking altogether. She stopped going to the bathroom. She was dying.

The psychiatric evaluation unit of the Los Angeles Police Department was called in, and people had mixed feelings.

Sally was a very gracious lady. She had endeared herself to many people of the community. But she was, indeed, dying. She needed professional care, as she had for months, but now "the law could be invoked" because "she was no longer able to take care of her basic life systems" and could be "forced against her will" to receive the care that she refused to accept, even to the moment when the unit took her away.

At County-USC Medical Center she was treated well. She stayed for two weeks. The day before Christmas, members of the hospital staff respectfully offered her two options for further care and housing ,and she chose the one described as featuring, among other things, "real good food."

The people of our local community, who continue to visit her in her new home, as they did when she was on the corner and in the hospital, report that she is like a new person, as gracious and grateful as always, but caring for herself now with respect and responsibility, with realistic hopes for the future.

This past Christmas in downtown Los Angeles was the scene of "a miracle" of sorts: a miracle of compassion, human and divine; a miracle of cooperation, by concerned individuals and "the system". It does not seem inappropriate to invite The Times' readers to be grateful and to take much hope in this ray of healing light, which has broken into the dark side of our common life.


St. Vincent's Church

Los Angeles

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